Pantone, the company behind the universally recognised colour matching system, announced its 2021 Color (more accurately, ‘Colours’) of the Year on December 9th, 2020—PANTONE 17-5104 and PANTONE 13-0647, otherwise known as Ultimate Gray and Illuminating respectively.
According to Pantone, these colours “highlight how different elements come together to support one another… practical and rock-solid, but at the same time, warming and optimistic, the union of PANTONE 17-5104 Ultimate Gray + PANTONE 13-0647 Illuminating is one of strength and positivity.” The two colours combined are meant to “satisfy our quest for vitality,” a tall order for colours. The reception to Ultimate Gray and Illuminating has been quite negative with some comparing the paring to hi-vis jackets and yellow road markings against concrete roads.
That said, colours do have meaning and are used to communicate and express ideas, rank, desires, and beliefs in classic African art. Laurie Pressman, Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute states: “As society continues to recognise colour as a critical form of communication, and a way to symbolise thoughts and ideas, many designers and brands are embracing the language of colour to engage and connect.”
In its release, Pantone described Illuminating as a “bright and cheerful yellow sparkling with vivacity, a warming yellow shade imbued with solar power.” Yellow has been consistently used by artists from various African ethnic groups to indeed express warmth and heat.
Among the Yoruba, the colour yellow (ofeefee), is associated with heat (gbigbona) and also with the worship of Ọṣun, òrìṣà of the Osun River and protector of children, goddess of divinity, femininity, fertility, beauty and love. According to Henry John Drewal and John Mason in ‘Beads, Body, and Soul: Art & Light in the Yoruba Universe’, “yata [beaded dance panels] are worn by Ọṣun priestesses as they dance while balancing brass vessels filled with sanctified water and healing leaves… Bright yellow beads [of dance] panels suggest the brightness of brass and the sweetness of honey, both attributes of our mother Ọṣun.”
The Igbo also associate yellow (odo) with warmth, peace, beauty, and all things good. Made from the bark of the local okwogho tree, odo is often painted onto mbubu masks, alusi figures and mbari shrines. Igbo neighbours, the Urhobo, also make use of yellow, this time in clay form (enakpa) similar to kaolin and used annually to coat shrine figures resulting in a crusty and thick patina over time.
Among the Akan of today’s Ghana, fufu (white, yellow, milk and any shade off white) is considered the sacred colour of the gods and of kings and conjures up ideals of purity and victory. Fufu also expresses feelings of joy, hope and wellbeing.
Across West Africa, through to the East where yellow is found in historical Ethiopian manuscripts and worn by Dinka men over 30 to represent their age group, yellow has been used to represent warmth, strength and positivity.
Ultimate Gray is described as “emblematic of solid and dependable elements which are everlasting and provide a firm foundation. Represents the ability to stand the test of time.” Yet again, there are parallels in African art as grey, is often used as a backdrop to photograph and highlight the different textures and surfaces of classic African sculpture.
The pairing of a grey backdrop against yellow is seen consistently in art made by artists of African descent as we highlight in our ‘lookbook’ below.