In search of intense color and history in the Canary Islands.
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY
REBECCA STUMPF AND GRETA RYBUS
Just over 60 miles off the western coast of Morocco lie the Canary Islands: seven Spanish islands that are historically considered the bridge between Africa, Asia, and Europe. Within this deep history lies the story of cochineal, a small insect that grows on prickly pear cactus and produces a spectrum of red, from soft lilacs to deep crimson. To understand the Canaries, to understand the color red, you have to understand cochineal.
So, that’s what we set out to do. Two photographers, we met in Montana a decade ago, and later made a pact to take a workshop together every year. This year, we decided to go on an adventure instead, to follow the story of cochineal on the Canary Islands—first, on the lush and tropical Gran Canaria and then on black, volcanic Lanzarote.
The Spanish history of cochineal began in Cadiz on the mainland in 1820. Within two decades of introducing the insects to the Canaries, the islands controlled 90% of production. Later, that market broke down completely with the discovery of cheaper artificial dye. That said, cochineal is making a comeback, as artists like our Gran Canaria guide and natural dye expert Ulrike Güse (or Uli) are finding a home for the tiny bug in their work.
“The Canaries are a paradise for natural dyers,” Uli tells us while demonstrating her method of creating a cochineal concentrate, then adding it and then her fabric to heated water. She adjusts her pH with lemon juice, adding her own nuance to the color. “You get used to the beauty, being around it all the time. I stop to see the beauty again when I have visitors,” Uli tell us as she turns her deep vat, so densely red it’s black in the shadows.
While Uli has worked with cochineal for years, she has never visited a cochineal farm. So, the three of us gather in our rental car to meet Lorenzo Pérez Jr. We maneuver through a herd of lazy sheep, then we finally arrive at the cactus fields, where we meet his father, also named Lorenzo Pérez. The Lorenzos, as we begin to call them, wear matching hats and show us how they harvest the insects gently, with a special spoon. They both seem to hold a unique reverence for the bug.
“Cochineal is very important in the Canary Islands. It is our most traditional crop and is in danger of extinction.” Lorenzo Jr. told us. “Most cochineal farmers are in their seventies or older, the young generation isn’t working in cochineal or as artisans or small producers.” Their company, called Canaturex, is the only cochineal farm certified by the EU. They supply to textile companies and independent artists primarily, but cochineal is also used to color meats, yogurt, ice cream, artificial crab, chewing gum, sweets and beauty products.
We have a lot to talk about and so we walk in the cactus fields until the light begins to fade. Lorenzo Sr. shows us how to brush the needles away from the prickly pear to eat its dark red fruit. This turns out to also be a practiced skill, and we get needles in our fingers, which we pick at while walking back, mouths full of red.
Our second stop is on Lanzarote, which sits northeast of Gran Canaria. We head to Milana, a non-profit association dedicated to the education and revitalization of growing cochineal and are greeted by Chana Perera, the president of the organization. Chana is in her 80s and in head-to-toe shades of purples and pinks, including her lips and nails. Her smile, laughter, and passion for the tradition of cochineal are contagious.
To help explain the modern story of cochineal, Chana takes us to the home and studio of Cristina Marsoc, a local artist who uses the bodies of cochineal and the skeletons of cacti as graphic elements in her paintings. She explains that she prefers to paint outside in the fields, where she can harvest directly from the cacti. While we’re there, Cristina pulls out a copy of Historia del Mundo, opening pages at random and pointing to pops of red throughout history. She’s pointing to depictions of explorers, cardinals, military generals, kings and emperors, all in a perfect red. “See that? Cochineal. Cochineal. Cochineal.”
Finally, Chana takes us to her home in the town of Mala. There, we find a field of cacti, older and bigger than the ones we saw on Gran Canaria. She dresses in a traditional cochineal harvesting costume, with long skirts and special gloves, and either a simple straw hat or a white, winged bonnet. Swapping her cane for a long, metal harvesting spoon, she walks us through the cacti. She puts a few bugs in the palm of her hand, crushes them with a forefinger and, laughing a bit, smears the redness on her lips like lipstick. And so we do too, laughing together. Looking at each other, our lips were red: red like Uli’s dye vats and the Lorenzos’ harvest; red like Chana’s silks. Red like the Canaries. Red like power, red like love.
Want to try your hand at cochineal dyeing? Get started right this way.