Museum of International Folk Art

The Red That Colored the World

January 15, 2015


Red, with its brilliant hue and broad cultural history, has inspired artists’ imaginations and seduced viewers for millennia.

The exhibition, The Red That Colored the World opening at the Museum of International Folk Art, combines new research and original scholarship to explore the history and widespread use in art of cochineal, an insect-based dye source for the color red whose origins and use date to the pre-Columbian Americas.

 The Red That Colored the World opens on May 17, 2015 and runs through September 13, 2015.

The exhibition translates the cochineal story into three dimensions, following the precious bug juice and its use in art from Mexico to Europe to the U.S. and beyond. Highlighting more than 130  objects—textiles, sculpture, paintings, manuscripts, decorative arts, clothing and more—from the Museum of International Folk Art, private lenders, and museums around the world, the exhibition explores the history of cochineal and the seductive visual nature of red. The objects reflect the unique international uses of color, revealing its role in the creative process, and the motivations of artists in their choice of materials.

Artists and dyers for centuries strived to find the color source to rival the best reds of nature, and to express the spirit, symbolism, and sustenance of life. Their quest ended in the Aztec marketplaces of 16th-century Mexico, where Spanish explorers encountered the American cochineal bug. The bug created an unparalleled range of reds with potent economic value. Its ensuing global spread launched an epic story of empire and desire that pushed art, culture, and trade to the edge of the unknown.

Pre-Columbian weavers used cochineal. So did El Greco, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. Hispano saint makers and Navajo weavers of the 18th- and 19th-century American Southwest followed suit, as did 20th century-Spanish design icon Mariano Fortuny. Synthetic dyes eclipsed natural sources in the late 19th century, but cochineal’s cachet never completely waned. Through such international objects, the exhibition follows the story to today, where cochineal and the color red remain hot commodities in cosmetics and commercial products, contemporary art, fashion and design, and other expressions of popular culture.

In development since 2009, The Red That Colored the World is one of the most ambitious exhibitions that the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) has ever produced. A major scholarly collaboration by an international team of curators, art historians, conservation scientists, and humanities consultants, Red tells the epic story of the history and global use in art of American cochineal. Red follows the cochineal insect through a 2000-year journey of global creativity and trade, as expressed through a range of works from pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial artists of Mexico and Peru, to such international painting masters as El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, and José de Ribera, to contemporary New Mexican artists, including Arlene Cisneros Sena, Ramón José López, Rita Padilla Hoffman, D.Y. Begay, and Orlando Dugi. Thanks to a pioneering partnership among conservation scientists from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España in Madrid, Red showcases objects that have tested scientifically positive to contain cochineal.  

The exhibition will be on view at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe from May 17 to September 13, 2015, after which it will travel to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, where it will be on view from November, 2015 to March, 2016.

The Hotel Santa Fe The Hacienda & Spa is the Lead Sponsor of The Red That Colored the World.

The Red That Colored the World has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Media Contacts:

Steve Cantrell, PR Manager



Nicolasa Chavez, Curator of Latino/Hispano/Spanish Colonial Collections





The Museum of International Folk Art is a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Museum of International Folk Art’s mission is “to enrich the human spirit by connecting people with the arts, traditions and cultures of the world.” Founded in 1953 by Florence Dibell Bartlett, the museum holds the world’s largest international folk art collection of more than 150,000 objects from six continents and over 150 nations.

The museum’s collections represent a broad range of global artists whose artistic expressions make Santa Fe an international crossroads of culture. For many visitors, fascination with folk art begins upon seeing the whimsical toys and traditional objects within the Girard Collection. For others, the international textiles, ceramics, carvings and other cultural treasures in the Neutrogena Collection provide the allure.  The museum’s historic and contemporary Latino and Hispano folk art collections, spanning the Spanish Colonial period to modern-day New Mexico, reflect how artists respond to their time and place in ways both delightful and sobering. In 2010, the museum opened the Mark Naylor and Dale Gunn Gallery of Conscience, where a series of exhibitions encourage visitors to exchange ideas on complex issues of human rights and social justice.

Over 90,000 national and international visitors visit the Museum International Folk Art every year. Through folk art, the museum encourages all to find a common ground upon which to craft better lives for all. 

Museum exhibitions and programs are supported by donors to the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and its Director’s Leadership Fund, Exhibitions Development Fund, and Fund for Museum Education, as well as by the International Folk Art Foundation, also established by museum founder Florence Dibell Bartlett.



Related Photos

Needlework picture of an Indian princess
From Purebred Creole and Spaniard: Spaniard (de castizo y española: español),
Batea (tray),
Workshop of Francisco de Zurbarán, The Emperor Domitian on Horseback
Navajo sarape with small poncho neck slit
El Greco, The Savior (from the Apostles series)
Jacob Frères, armchair (fauteuil) from the Council Room (Salle du Conseil),
Orlando Dugi, evening gown (from the Red Collection), Detail of bodice
Orlando Dugi, evening gown (from the Red Collection)
Iran Trade Cloth (Detail)
Iran Trade Cloth
Collection of wooden of Keros, Peru, 17th c.- 18th c.
Beeswax candles
Molleno, St. James, New Mexico, ca. 1805-1845
Nicho and Santos (Niche and Saints)
Altar cloth and cochineal dyed wool yarn
Sewing box and cover with cochineal dyed wool yarn (detail)
Chest and diamond-twill skirt fabric
Maurice Jacques, chair back upholstery panel, Manufacture Nationale des Gobelins

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