Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Evolution of Color Symbolism

Our responses to color are inherited and learned. My experiences in Pakistan reconfirmed the reality of both universal color symbolism (timeless) and all the other kinds of meanings that evolve over time (religious, geographic, political, gender-based, etc.)

A perfect example is evolution of the yellow. If we turn back the clock to the Stone Age at any place on earth, yellow was and still is the color of flowers – typically flowers that bloom in the Spring. In Pakistan, the yellow mustard blossom is and was the color of Spring. Regardless of demographic parameters, the color represents the joy experienced at the onset of Spring after a long winter. Yellow is symbolic of happiness.

Using Pakistan as an example of how a color retains its timeless symbolism today, the city of Lahore marks the beginning of Spring with the Basant (which means yellow in Hindi) Festival.
This carnival is an orgy of kite-flying, rooftop soirees, garden parties and much more. The festival peaks with an all-night flood-lit kite-flying marathon. The kites come in different sizes as well - some have to be transported on the roofs of cars, others are small enough to be carried on bicycles. Yellow is the predominant color.

Of historical note: In pre-partition India, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all celebrated Basant. Yellow clothes were worn; men wore yellow turbans and women yellow dupattas and saris.

Of political note: The government of Pakistan banned kite-flying in 2006 after ruling that the sport has become increasingly deadly. The government lifted the ban for the Basant Festival this year.

For scholarly debate (and of psychological note for those who disagree with the fact that the symbolism of a color may contain meanings that are universal):
An overwhelming majority of the 80,000 people (from all over the world) who have taken the Global Color Survey at Color Matters reply that yellow is the color of happiness. We must bear in mind that geographic, gender-based, political, national, cultural, religious and other meanings co-exist with the timeless and universal symbolism of a color. These other sources can be powerful sources for a broad analysis of a color. However, any argument for the precedence of other symbolic content can be problematic (and self-serving) if it dismisses the existence of symbolism based on the global experience of a color as it existed long before these other meanings evolved. The timeless and universal meaning provides the critical foundation for a complete analysis of a color.

This is the last commentary about the colors of Pakistan. In conclusion, I’ve created two special pages:

The Colors of Pakistan
(The timeless and timely symbolism of blue, green, yellow, red, and brown)

Letters to America
"We are not terrorists!" (and more)

You can also find the past blogs about Pakistan (February-March) in an expanded form with new graphics at the new Color Matters in Pakistan page.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Colors of Political Protest in Pakistan

What does it feel like to be a young adult in Pakistan? Is the country really the way the media presents it with themes of terrorism, religious extremism, oppression of women, or any other volatile topic that attracts attention? Some artwork from the Visual Communications students at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore tells a different story.

During my last week in Lahore, several design students submitted artwork that reflects their experiences about the current state of affairs in their homeland. One of them was a floor sculpture – a large map of Pakistan (8 x 3 feet / 2.5 x 1 meters), covered with green hands, reaching upwards. (The color of the flag of Pakistan is green.) The piece is a true testimony to the search for peace and stability in Pakistan.

Another compelling political statement was a photographic image of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) that American drones are bombing. “Hellwood” (in bold white letters evocative of the world famous "Hollywood Sign”) was placed on top of the camouflage-colored mountains. Ali Haider, whose ancestors are from Afghanistan, came up with the concept and Janaka, an exchange student from Sri Lanka, did the graphic work. This image presents another view – that of the tragedy of daily life - in this region . Although there may be pockets of militancy and religious extremism in the remote tribal areas, there are 21,000,000 people (none of whom have connection to terrorists) who are simply struggling to survive in this mountainous area, appropriately labeled “Hellwood.”

Perhaps these students can realistically present the colors of the peace we all seek.

LINK to a page with more comments and all the images.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Colors of Tarogil Village, Pakistan - Textile Students

Some history first: The earliest known example of cotton is the fragment found at Mehrgarh, Pakistan, one of the most important Neolithic (Stone Age/7000 B.C. – 3200 B.C. ) sites.
(Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 29, Issue 12, December 2002, Pages 1393-1401)

Today, cotton textile production and apparel manufacturing are Pakistan's largest industries, accounting for about 70% of total export.

Consequently, it is quite significant that Beaconhouse National University has nurtured a Textiles Department. During my 4th week in Pakistan, I conducted a color workshop for these students.

The workshop included a field trip to the village - a small cluster of homes in the midst of the mustard fields that surrounds the Tarogil campus. The homes are primarily constructed of mud, mud-brick, and thatch. Unpaved streets and paths are filled with people dressed in traditional garb, donkey carts and buffalo carts (whose prototype dates back to the third millennium B.C.). No cars! A sense of timelessness . . . a step back to a time that most of us only see in movies. The visual landscape of Targogil village reminds us of that era in Pakistan that is the source of the earliest cotton fragment.

The assignment required that the textile students note the colors in the village. As was the case with the 2nd year Visual Communications students, they were to get close to whatever they encountered – whether it were the colors of the mustard fields and other colors in the natural surround or the materials and surfaces of objects and structures.

After compiling their color notations, each student selected three favorite colors and one least favorite color for a composition based on the Bezold effect.

A series of illustrations is provided at this LINK

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Cultural History as Key to Color

The historical landscape of any place in the world serves as an essential key to colors – to meaningful colors in a culture. This was the focus of the color workshop for 2nd year Visual Communications students at BNU in Lahore, Pakistan.

First, we went on a field trip to the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque (whose estimated date of initial construction is the 11th century – long before the Gothic cathedrals of the Western world). The assignment required that each student take approximately ten sets of photographs. Each set required a panoramic shot of any building on the 48 acres of the Fort and Mosque and 4-5 close up shots of the same structure. (A possible total of 50 or more images.) A concentrated focus on the colors and textures was the primary issue. 

Next, the results of this survey were to be presented in a well-designed collage, triptych, or any organized composition.

Of note is the fact that most of the students had visited the Fort and Mosque several times during elementary school and high school field trips. In spite or this, the experience of observing the colors of these significant historical buildings from near and far was an invaluable experience.

Individual perceptions varied. Some students tuned in to the muted salmon orange hues of the masonry; others to the cobalt blues of the tiles.

Photographs of the field trip to the Lahore Fort and Mosque and two of the final compositions can be seen at this LINK