Red That Colored the World

Oct 31, 2018

Through the upcoming holiday seasons and into the New Year, three exhibitions at the Museum of Texas Tech University will showcase the power of the color red. “The Red That Colored the World,” features a small bug’s contribution to art over the centuries. The museum’s collection of clothing and textiles makes up “Ladies in Red,” and “Red, Hot & Quilted” features creations by the Caprock Art Quilters.

”The Red That Colored the World” exhibition features more than 50 objects that include textiles, sculpture, paintings, decorative arts and clothing from the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibition explores the history of the cochineal and the seductive visual nature of red. The objects reflect the unique international uses of color, revealing the creative process and the motivation of artists. Marian Ann Montgomery, the curator of clothing and textiles at the Museum of Texas Tech, says the small insect’s color has a long history.

“Museums around the world began looking at their collections to see what paintings and what textiles have been colored using the American cochineal. This is the cochineal, red dye, that comes from the cochineal insect. It is the white part that grows on prickly pear cactus. The Mayans were using this before the Spaniards ever came to the Americas and it ended up being the gold that the spaniards, that the wealth that they got because this red was the most color-fast red dye, the most brilliant red dye, in the world. And the spaniards held the monopoly on it until the Dutch invented the microscope and realized that they were using insects rather than plant materials. It was a very important thing during that era when colors were all natural colors, there was no synthetic coloring, that didn’t come in until the end of the 19th century,” Montgomery says.

It takes as many as 100,000 cochineal bugs, which are found in the southwestern U.S., and Central and South America, to make one kilogram of the red dye. The bugs that live on the cactus are soft-bodied, flat and oval shaped.

Cochineal and its derivatives today lies exclusively in the cosmetics and food industries with Western Europe (notably France and the UK), the US, Japan and Argentina as the principal markets. The FDA considers cochineal safe.

Montgomery says taking in this exhibition is a walk through an important portion of art history.

“These are some of the earliest man-made things ever to come to Lubbock,” she says.

Because not all of the Santa Fe museum’s collection came to the Tech museum, Montgomery and others decided to organize the two companion exhibitions.

The first features 55 red dresses, 14 red hats, 17 pairs of red shoes and four cheerleading uniforms that are part of the Tech museum’s clothing and textile collection and four cheerleading uniforms. There is a relatively unknown mascot uniform from the early 1980s, too.

“Raider Rose was quite an interesting thing because as they snuck her onto the field, the Saddle Tramps were like ‘well which one of us figured this thing out, which one of us did this?’”

The second companion exhibition features about 20 quilts created by West Texas men and women.

“These are quilts based on just the idea of challenging incredibly creative fiber artists here in the West Texas area to make something inspired by the color red. So, it ranges from really incredible art to whimsical things,” Montgomery says.

Montgomery says the three exhibitions create a dynamic museum experience.

“The dynamic aspect of these three exhibits is that it’s only going to be seen here in Lubbock,” she says, “So we’re really glad to have it through the holidays.”

The Red That Colored the World and the Ladies in Red exhibits are funded in part by the Helen Jones Foundation, the CH Foundation and the Museum of Texas Tech University Association. The Red That Colored the World and the Red, Hot and Quilted exhibitions run through Jan. 17. The Ladies in Red exhibition runs through Feb. 2.