A painter’s interest in pre-Hispanic pigments has led him on a path of rediscovery and international outreach.
Alejandro Martínez Hernández, 46, began using the natural dye carmine almost 10 years ago, encouraging a resurgence in interest in the pigment and the insect from which it is obtained, cochineal (Dactylopius coccus).
Cochineal carmine used to be the second most valuable export from colonial Mexico, second only to silver. But the growth in popularity of commercial synthetic red dyes in modern times meant a drastic drop in demand for the natural product. However, its harvest in Oaxaca, where it feeds on the moisture and nutrients of nopal cactus, has continued.
A native of the state, Martínez not only rediscovered the dye and began using it in his art but he tried incorporating various additives, through which he has been able to develop 15 different tones.
Martínez can now produce the bright shades of red that made cochineal a pricey product in the past, along with equally vibrant violets and pinks, shades of orange and even of grey, through the use of solvents.
Martínez’s cochineal creations have earned him recognition in Mexico and abroad, reaching exhibition spaces in the United States, Argentina, Costa Rica, Spain and Italy.
It was in the latter country that Martínez participated in an exhibit in September with five other artists from Oaxaca. The Firenze Il Bisonte Foundation, an art center that specializes in printmaking, took note of his work and invited him to give a workshop.
Martínez will be going back to Italy in November, taking his cochineal pigments and teaching young artists about their use.
The fall art courses will be a continuation of Martínez’s rediscovery of cochineal. In Oaxaca, he leads a collective and workshop known as El Espacio de Sabina, where he teaches courses on the use of the natural dye.
The space also serves as a gallery, where his work can be bought. “I like it that those who buy my work can also watch the process, and understand why I paint with what I paint,” he told the newspaper El Universal.
Source: El Universal (sp)