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origins in belief

Many of us use the color of our skin, our eyes and our hair as the first filter before deciding what to buy and what to wear. Today and throughout history, there are many moments where the choice is not yours to make, for example when rulers and gods are in charge. This Things That Talk looks at two stories whereby the choice of color was decided for us. We will see where the role that rulers and gods play in these stories both cross and overlap. Backdrop for both stories is Suriname.

In the 17th and 18th century, African traders on the coast of West-Africa traded human beings for pieces of blue, indigo fabric. By the time the fabric landed in the hands of the trader, it had already traveled from India to the Netherlands. While the fine fabrics filled the elite African’s treasure trove, the cheapest African fabrics were used to cover up the private parts of the enslaved men and women. And so they went aboard, transported as cargo to a new place of horror. It is said that spirits travel between our own skin and the second skin that is our clothes. The ones that survived the passage, set foot in Suriname with their values, experiences and beliefs from back home, and were joined by the spirits of those who did not make it.

For many enslaved men and women, blue fabric was the reason that they found themselves on the plantation. But once they had fled or were freed, blue fabric became paramount to separating good from evil and oppression. Apart from the blue fabric, the only other colors available to the Afro-Surinamese population were red and white.

The first story by Leiden University College BA-student Hanne Berendse describes the blind belief in blue fabric and washing blue, the second one the way color and cloth can symbolize the history of human trading.

Sarpusu and Bluing

This story is about a piece of blue fabric from Suriname and a block of compressed blue powder that makes white laundry crisp again. Although this may look like an ordinary piece of fabric and an ordinary block of soap, you are actually looking at two items that can help prevent illness, keep out unwanted nightly visitors, and cleanse the soul.

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Obiaman's cloth

The main object in this story is a rectangular, dark blue cloth in the collection of the National Museum of World Cultures in Leiden. It traveled from Suriname to the Netherlands in 1962. We do not have any information on its maker, its age, on the symbols on the cloth, nor on its exact use. For the storyteller, however, this piece of cloth helped him revisit his roots.

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