Colors traditional roles Serbia – The idea and material for this post come from the exhibition Reading Colors, authored by organized at the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade (September 2023-March 2024). I visited the exhibition, attended the author’s tour, and collected the material in December last year. The only reason for the delay is my hope for the criteria to be met.

The exhibition Reading Colors examines the complex phenomenon of colors’ traditional roles from three aspects: General anthropological, the role of colors in Serbian life, and natural textile dyeing technology. The theme illustrates 68 eco-friendly textile items from the 19th century dyed using organic pigments from collections of folk costumes, interior and usable textiles.

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The author emphasizes that colors are everywhere – in nature, architecture, art, and interior design. They make the foundation of our visual perception of our environment. They are ephemera phenomena that depend on light and visual perception. In Serbian traditional culture, colors are also brimming with symbolic meaning and represent elements for interpreting the World.

Colors are natural but also created by human skills and are a sensitive and changeable cultural category. They exist in all cultures and are carriers of various symbolic meanings that change along with society. Each color is a separate category from cultural-historical, religious, and artistic aspects.

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Visual identity

Excellent color reading aids are analytical legends, the example I give. Pillowcase from Boljevac, made in 1902. Its graphic legend contains an analytical representation of color combinations and their local vernacular names.

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Pillowcase, Boljevac, 1902. Marked organic dyes and their vernacular names.

The visual setting looks like a primary division by color (red, blue, black, yellow, and green), and each part is a layered but coherent media story. In the segment of each color, we primarily introduce pieces of clothing textiles of priceless historical heritage. In addition to dedicated, formal, aesthetic information in this concept, they are also a source for identifying types of textile materials. Parallel to the general exposition line, Reading colors showcase all plant raw materials used in archaic folk dyeing. High value is in original recipes collected in field research in the 1950s.

Lucky us, every single segment gives the visual solution as an effective reading job of the object legends on the exhibits. The text emphasizes all preserved folk terms, especially color names. The white background, adequate lighting, and content processing accentuate the exhibits with exceptional cultural and artistic value.

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Red

Numerous names for the color red confirm its antiquity and importance in the past of the Serbs. Once, people appreciated and used the color red as associated with fire, blood, life, fertility, and health. Hence, its role in wedding and childbirth customs, livestock, and crops. It represents happiness and beauty. It repels evil eyes in witchcraft, believing as protection against otherworld forces (red thread, red Easter egg, red stone, red cloth, red herbs). On the other hand, as related to the cult of the dead, red requisites in funeral customs.

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Museum textiles in red – clothes, rugs, towels…

The visual solutions of the segments are a good example of the interpretation of the subject legends of the exhibits. The text emphasizes preserved folk names of colors. Also, the white background, lighting, and artistic processing accentuate exhibits of exceptional cultural and artistic value.

For example, this woven belt from around Niš of red wool is the homework of a peasant woman. As well as, special decorative element is a pattern of peacock feathers embroidered with gilded thread and domestically dyed natural red, green, and yellow colors.

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Belt, Niš, 19th century, a long-abandoned piece of oriental clothing

Red carpets, high representatives of local carpet-making among Serbs

I will now point to two red carpets but representatives of different manners of local carpet making. The first (left piece) a smooth tapestry-woven kilim with rows of tree-of-life patterns and mirrors is the work of 19th-century Pirot weavers, made of hand-dyed wool. The other (right example) is a shaggy carpet from the village Majdevo near Kruševac, made with the knotting technique. Weaver received a certificate of appreciation from the Serbian Agricultural Society in 1891.

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An exceptional piece in the red block is a red cloth raincoat from the village of Štavalj, Sjenica, made about 1920. The yarns are dyed in pigments of insect origin and crafted by a local tailor. Cut from 12 arshins of domestic cloth. Useful in winter coldness or rain. The powerful protector against supernatural forces or, if one carries valuable goods that lure robbers during unsafe trips. Petar Kaličanin wore it until the middle of the 20th century. Local brides often used red cloaks to defend against unclean forces, when women were extremely vulnerable.

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Raincoat from the village of Štavalj, Sjenica, about 1920.

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Green

In the Serbian tradition, green is associated with nature, vegetation, flourishing, progress, joy, and success. Greenery in wedding customs stimulates fertility and marital happiness. But it is also the color of the chthonic world and is a frequent attribute of mythical creatures in oral folk literature (devil, witch, dragon, fairy).

So, chanting should drive out evil forces, to a green mountain, grass, a green meadow, and a green tree.

Green symbolizes youth, strong ones, powerful, fertile, and even violent. However, attitudes towards the color green are changing over time. In Turkish times, as the color of Islam, green was forbidden to non-Muslims.

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Old-fashioned coat of wollen cloth, Golubac, 19th century

Thus, obviously, from the color, the coat originates from the time of the liberation of Serbia at the end of the 19th century. Provoked by age-old prohibitions, wealthy Serbs wear lavishly decorated clothes with cord embroidery. And instead of their favorite red, they choose green coats.

The local cloth woven by women is dyed green by a dyer and made by a kind of tailor (a noun of Arabic origin aba, and the Turkish suffix ji) tailor-works of cloth, aba. In this case, the clothes meant the realization of the aspiration for prestige.

Typical products of homemade crafts by rural women

Contrary to the previous example, these multi-colored, multi-yarn socks are a typical product of homemade crafts by rural women. The pattern of the upper, visible part of the sock consists of complex patterns (corners and wreaths stand out). As the green color predominates, they are called greenish. The women spun and dyed the wool for knitting with natural colors at home.

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Handknitted socks, Leskovac, 19th century

During the 20th century, skirts around Morava had common related cuts and striped patterns. Bright and vivid palettes are for young women and dark for elders. These two models are woven in two halves and joined along the width. The pattern is striped in tones of green, brown, and black. Colors originate from different recipes and plants. Shortly, the first example contains a yellow-green color extracted from walnuts, and the second, a darker green from peach leaves and black mineral gallo tannin.

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Skirt, Belonjin, Prokuplje, 1943, walnut
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Skirt, dark-green Niševac, Svrljig, 1926, peach, Gallo tannin

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Black

The cultural meanings of the color black vary over time. It is a constant connection to death and the other world. Middle Ages brought black color as restraint and modesty, asceticism. But high fashion enthroned black as a timeless concept of formal elegance.

In Serbian tradition, black color reflects darkness, earth, and death. Magical behaviors considered black to be a protective power. In the rituals, there are animals, plants, and objects of black color (blackthorn, black mulberry, knife with black scabbard). The process of painting in black color was frightening because women used walnuts the most. The reason is the walnut is considered a chthonic tree in which impure forces live.

Dark shades of brown are included in the black palette and are interpreted equally as black. So, brown shades are widely used in yarn dyeing for everyday Textiles production.

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Traditional textile items of various uses of black, from the basic to its related dark and light browns (detail of the exposition)

Accordingly, lets see a pair of black men’s socks from Zmijanje (Bosnia and Herzegovina) in 1920. Shiny black wool dyed at home with ash tree bark. The knitted pattern of the upper part of the sock is with longitudinal stripes and chains. Strings with silk tassels bind the socks. The original part of the sock foot has been torn and re-knitted. But it is an undyed yarn made of brown sheep’s fleece.

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Men’s socks, Zmijanje (BIH) knitted in 1920, ash tree bark

From traditional woven inventory for setting the bed

Bedcover, for everyday use, Ćuprija. Woven in 1956 according to the old model. Women dyed wool in black with ash tree, and brown in walnut.

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Bedcover, Ćuprija, 1956. Black dyed in ash tree, brown in walnut.
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Bed straw matters, Kragujevac, first half of 20th century. Undyed and walnut-dyed hemp.

But the next item is of extremely archaic origin, this bed straw mattress, Kragujevac. Hemp weave, domestically grown and processed into yarn. Weaving technique in four-thread twill. Alternate of warps and wefts, essentially undyed, with strips dyed in a walnut bark. So I emphasize, that the checker is among the oldest surviving decorative weaving techniques for decorating domestic textiles.

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Yellow

Spontaneously, yellow should remind us of the sun, gold, wheat and straw, death, pallor, and illness. But, yellow also has a dual traditional meaning. Marks life and progress associating with maturity, prosperity, and experience. On the other hand, it is a sign of weakness, illness, death, and the autumn dying of nature, which is why people link it to the chthonic world.

Although, according to the presence of the yellow pigment, the people include a spectrum of shades from brown, ocher, and beige to a hint of green. Among yellow and brown, numerous antique textiles made of hemp are on display. Indeed, they visibly indicate that pigments hardly penetrate the plant fiber.

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Carpet with stylized icons, Užice, 19th century

In the foreground of the scene is a yellow carpet with five icons. It is an example of M. Cvetković’s observation about the usual combination of yellow and blue ornamentation. On the melted surface of orange tones, is a contrasting dark blue, combined with a yellow palette.

As an illustration of the application of natural yellow, we have two items: hemp and wool weave.

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Above, the first example is a bed sheet with longitudinal stripes with a visible warp. The beige color is of grape pomace.

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In the same yellow palette is the orange-black bedspread. It is a woolen rug from Svrljig in the 19th century. Henceforth, remarkable bright colors and a wide tonal range prove that wool fiber is the best color receiver. Especially since the leaf and bark of the Rhus as a dye give an intense orange. At the same time, it binds the color well to the fabric and allows for durability. In addition, the weaving technique is a brocade in three threads common in Eastern Serbia.

Colors traditional roles Serbia – Blue

Blue is usually reminiscent of infinity and symbolizes the infinite sea or the sky. Although epithet of the chthonic and demonic world, blue also contains the power of protection. Especially important for children against spells, from the evil eye. To obtain blue, crafters and village women mostly used purchased indigo.

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Carpet, Pljevlja, Montenegro, 19th century, colors of plant origin

Blue carpet from Pljevlja, Montenegro, first half of the 19th century. The surface is dark blue wool, dyed with indigo. Indigo blue and vegetable colors for patterning, women dyed using domestic technologies. With meticulous execution, the weaver imitated the elements of Pirot carpet making.

Next, we see a pleated skirt, also domestically dyed with indigo

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Shirt, Jajce, Bosna and Hercegovina, indigo

In the same series is a white shirt of hemp linen with dark blue ornamentation. Cross-stitch embroidery covers large areas of the bust and sleeves. Stitch with woolen thread according to the pattern. Local women used to purchase indigo and dye their wool at home.

Observation

The project functions primarily cognitively but also as the aesthetic function of the setting as the central content. Just conveniently, information points to the presented subject as the focus. And there is a mysterious beauty that seduces and comes to the fore. The experience is spontaneous, necessary, and beneficial.

But for a deep rational approach, there are also opportunities for authorial guidance. The author explains the specific meanings of terms, the treatment of colors during cultural development, authenticity, and the function of colors in exhibits. Because our modern times also need refreshing of the collective memory of folk knowledge and beliefs from life in the past.

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Exciting guidance by museum advisor Marina Cvetković, at the exhibition Reading Colors, 26.12.2023.

But, for now, I am just finishing the first chapter about colors in the traditional culture of the Serbs. But I hope for a new post soon. It should be about the application of vegetable dyeing in textiles. As author Marina Cvetković points out, a desirable eco-perspective through the project Reading Colors.

Until then, Sincerely, Branka on Textiles

2 thoughts on “Colors Traditional Roles Serbia – Exhibition READING COLORS gets us to know very new complex information about colorful museum textiles

    1. Rovovska borba! Hvala vam draga Tijana! Hvala svakom ko pročita tekst (nezavisno od lajka na FB)
      Srdačno vas pozdravljam i idem na Marinin prikaz starih receptura prirodnog bojenja, Branka

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