Friday, July 21, 2017

From My Files 1: Some Jagua History

It's been a while since my last blog. The truth is that I've been very busy with my doctoral program and I haven't had time to research and write the lengthy articles as in the past. But I'm going through my henna files in preparation for HennaCon 2017 and thought I'd post some shorter snippets of interesting history... So welcome to the first instalment of this "From My Files" series! My goal is to post one a week from now until Henna Con — that's only 12 weeks away!!! Can you believe it? So feel free to check in every week (you can subscribe by email, or follow us on Facebook), and let the countdown begin!

The first piece that I thought I would post is not actually related to the history of henna, but rather to jagua, another natural dye that has become very popular recently. Jagua (pronounced 'ha-gwa') is a blue-black dye made from a Amazonian fruit, Genipa americana, and is traditionally used by a number of indigenous peoples in South America as a body dye as well as a food.

The fruit of Genipa americana.
But even though many people in the US had not heard of it until recently, jagua has actually been known in Europe as a dye for almost as long as henna! Starting in the 1500s, European travellers in the "New World" brought back stories and images of the natives of those parts and of their strange customs, including jagua (known as the genipa fruit)... Of course, these stories were distorted not only by their misunderstandings of native culture but also by their worldview that this 'New World,' and everything in it, was simultaneously pure and uncorrupted (the "noble savage") but also barbaric and monstrous.

In 1613, the English cleric Samuel Purchas published what would be a early modern bestseller, a sort of encyclopedia of travel and world culture: Purchas His Pilgrimage: or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this PresentIn the 9th chapter of Part IV dealing with the Americas, Purchas writes the native men and women of Brazil "make themselves blacke with the fruit Genipapi" — this being his best transcription of the Tupi word yani'pawa, which gives us the word "genipa" today, and the first reference in English to the use of jagua in body art.

Other writers and artists of the 17th century included similar descriptions of the TupĂ­ people, and an illustration of their body painting appears in Anthropometamorphosis, man transform'd, or, The artificial changeling (1650), a strange and fascinating book on body modification around the world by the English physician John Bulwer. He writes that the "Brasileans" are "painted over the body, the armes, and thighs... with the juice of a certaine fruit, which they call Genipat, which doth black so much, that though they wash themselves they cannot be clean in ten or twelve daies after." The woodcut illustration that he includes actually shows a pretty reasonable representation of a Tupi woman decorated with jagua dye:

Brazilian Tupi woman decorated with
jagua, Anthropometamorphosis, 1650.
And most interestingly, one reference demonstrates that an actual Genipa fruit had made its way to England by the middle of the 1600s! A French collector named Robert Hubert (Hubbard) living in London describes having one in his cabinet of curiosities (a collection of rare objects from around the world that were displayed to the public, a sort of precursor to the modern museum). In his section of "Vegetables" he writes that he has "a Fruit called Genipapa" which "is of the forme of a Limon, but of strange operation, for the juice is as cleere as water; but a little of it put on ones hand dyeth it of a purple co∣lour; but to redouble it with more of the same liquour, it makes the place as black as Jett and no art of man can fetch it out, but it will grow out of it self in nine dayes."

Entry for genipa fruit in Hubert's Catalogue of Many Natural Rarities (London, 1664).
One can only wonder if Monsieur Hubert had given this a try himself!

Unfortunately, many of the indigenous people of the Amazon today — the Tupinamba, the Kayapo, and others — face serious threats both from the ongoing destruction of their environment, the effects of climate change, and the pressures of tourism and cultural assimilation. There are many indigenous-rights initiatives and organizations fighting this, such as the Kayapo Project, that you can read about and support here.

An Asurini girl, decorated with jagua,
playing in the water; photo by Alice Kohler.
This neat snippet of history shows us that history moves in cycles, and that everything old becomes new again. Hopefully today we are able to learn more about other cultures in ways that are supportive and respectful, rather than destructive and belittling.

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