Pasts & Futures | Interventions

Reflections on the Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative

Valeska Populoh & Kibibi Ajanku


**Valeska Populoh** is a faculty member in the MICA Fiber Department. She facilitates the “Natural Dye as Intercultural Connector” course. Valeska engaged MICA colleagues in developing principles and protocols grounded in racial equity to guide work on the project, and has focused on the recruitment and engagement of community partners.

**Kibibi Ajanku** is a multi-faceted artist. She makes and presents ethnically charged art because her passion embodies the thrust of the African Diaspora. Ajanku’s creativity is the ongoing and ever-evolving effort of her life journey. Her work is eclectic and innovative. It is ancient while at the same time new-world and always changing, becoming artistry that is layered with, and entrenched in, indigenous folkways. Kibibi Ajanku’s work embodies research, identity, and the gathering of elements of African retention, in hopes of evoking intuitive memories that reach back into ancestral histories and stories that impact the here and the now.

Kibibi Ajanku’s creative prowess has been witnessed across three decades, in colorful motion, on the various performance stages of the renown Sankofa Dance Theater. The company features elements of the distant past, existing present, and imagined future, all drenched in the traditions of the historical Mali Dynasty. The group exhibits new-world costuming and choreography created by Ajanku, with a nuance that embodies the old-world authentic traditions of West Africa. Ajanku’s body of work features mixed media components and is sometimes infused with sculptural elements, upcycled parts, as well as glass and bead embellishments. The ever-growing collection is not limited to costuming. The landscape of Ajanku’s artistry includes work in indigo, art quilts, two dimensional, as well as three dimensional representation.

Kibibi Ajanku’s passion for art began early. She was nurtured by “grandma’s hands” as she sat at the knees of a quilt making maternal grandmother and soon followed on the heels of fashion forward seamstress aunts. This fueled an artistic journey as an exploration and execution of an indigenous aesthetic. Ajanku is empowered by international training and workshops: tapestries in Theis, Senegal; Adinkra fabric printing and kente weaving in Kumasi, Ghana; mud cloth acquisitions from the Mali railway; embroidery work in Medina, Senegal; and Orisha attire in Havana, Cuba. Her work has been presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Walters Art Museum, Reginald F. Lewis Museum, hangs in private collections, and has graced exhibition walls from Maryland to Colorado to Florida. Kibibi Ajanku’s career has required vast travel for the acquisition of information, materials, supplies, artifacts, and details from indigenous locations in West Africa, South Africa, the Caribbean, and certain American villages. Her major projects have been artistically curated, providing an experience that is an informative journey to the exotic places.

Ajanku believes that when presented properly, art is the perfect vehicle to move forward into greater intercultural awareness for the global community. To that end, Kibibi Ajanku curates and guides the elements of the Urban Arts Leadership Initiative for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance where she serves as Equity and Inclusion Director. Under her leadership, the Fellowship has increased racial inclusion within arts sector leadership and has positively altered workplace best practices through actively training, placing, and referring an annual cohort of emerging professionals. Additionally, she holds space as the Resident Curator for a small gallery in the Fells Point area of Baltimore, Maryland. Ajanku is also the Urban Arts Professor for a rotating cohort of students at Coppin State University, and serves as a Resident Artist/Researcher for Maryland Institute College of Art Fibers Department. Furthermore, Ajanku is excited to administer the evolution of a new Urban Arts Field School project with UAL fellows and community folklorists, recently funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Efforts at reviving the practices of growing and processing natural dyes are taking root in diverse communities across North America, as is a renewed interest in these methods and traditions in academic institutions. In the wake of this resurgence, what are some lessons and best practices we can share with each other from our work? How do we center racial justice, equity and inclusion in our

projects and classrooms? What are we learning that can help us minimize unintended harm and replicating the extractive and oppressive practices that define so much of natural dye history from colonization to the present day? Where are the stories of traditionally marginalized communities who are reconnecting with natural dyes as a form of healing and repair? What can we do to identify and lift up these stories collectively and make them more visible?