Rediscovering Liberian Natural Dyes

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Liberia is making the big push for development. In most of our minds, development means looking at what the western world has done to become developed and copying its example. Some Liberian artists have another idea; they recognize that our needs are unique, that we have been blessed with an abundance of raw materials to fill these needs and the creativity of its people to use these raw materials. Since antiquity, our artistic ancestors dyed thread, cloth, raffia, markers and even body parts using safe and natural substances such as bark, seeds, leaves and mud, providing for Liberians centuries of traditional techniques to tap into.

 In the textile industry, development generally led to the use of synthetic dyes. Industrialization with its emphasis on speed of production and flashy, non-fading colors became the standard. Only later did we learn the many dangers of using synthetic dyes. Most synthetic dyes contain carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals. They emit toxic fumes, and they often cause allergic reactions. These are only a few of the many harmful effects associated with using synthetics. So it is important now that we look beyond what has been done to what health conscious and sustainability conscious people all over the world are realizing: our natural resources are rich in plants and minerals that produce safe and beautiful natural dyes.

At the forefront of this movement in Liberia is Dolly Barnes. She began, long ago, experimenting with natural dyes in her own art work using not only cloth, but beads made from organic materials and grasses.  A 2009 UNESCO research project to assess the viability of Liberian textile techniques for modern day uses confirmed a niche market for such textiles in eco-friendly environments, its economic benefits for dyers, an abundance of raw materials in the backyards of rural Liberians and a revitalization of a traditional technique for dyeing that would become extinct if not passed down to younger generations of dyers.

One of the artists Inspired by Dolly Barnes’ enthusiasm for natural dyes is Mohamed S. Bah (see photo above). Mohamed is a Monrovia textile artist who first met Ms. Barnes when they worked together on the UNESCO research project. Together, with much trial and error, they have exposed, refined and continued to promote fabrics dyed with natural materials. As a result of the Inspired Energy Mohamed put into his craft, he now produces beautiful cloths colored with natural dyes.

Earlier this year Mohamed trained 25 women in natural dyeing within the Vocational Skills Development Program of the Grand Cavalla Integrated Development Project of W.V.S. Tubman University in Maryland County. This project is part of the university’s community outreach program, and was financially supported by Measuagoon, a non-profit organization founded by Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 

When you purchase these goods made from natural ingredients, you make it possible for our artists to continue safeguarding their health and ours and Liberia’s traditional way of coloring and designing fabrics.

As Mohamed Bah says, “I would like people to be encouraged to use the natural elements all around them. I hope some people reading this will be Inspired and get their own ideas to use the blessings we have in Nature.”

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