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  • Writer's pictureHolly Ann Scoggins

A yellow soaked in blood

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

“The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall-Paper

It is 1977 and bullets fly through the fields of Choeung Ek. One gun is aimed at a fleeing Cambodian who just a few years ago was an upstanding citizen and doctor. He is now forced to work in a labor camp by the communist organization Khmer Rouge. This group has labeled the doctor unfit to assimilate because of his education and social standing... and because he wears glasses. Sweat drips down his face as he runs for his life through the dense and bumpy fields. One bullet flies through the air, pierces through his warm body, and forcefully embeds itself into a Garcina evergreen tree. The doctors body falls lifeless to the ground.... The tree, now injured, begins slowly oozing a yellow liquid from its side. This open wound will fester and drip for 3 years before anyone can harvest enough of the coveted yellow pigment called Gamboge. Winsor and Newton, an English paint supply company harvested Gamboge in bamboo tubes in this very field. In the 1980s though, they shockingly opened pigment packages embedded with fired bullets. Victoria Finlay, author of Color states, “What happened to the other bullets can only be imagined.”

More than one million Cambodians lost their lives in one of the many killing fields like Choeung Ek. Nicolle Orkoren states " Immediately, they (Khmer Rouge) set out to reorganize the country into a united agrarian society by moving all city dwellers into the countryside to work in the fields – and killing anyone who would not assimilate or, conversely, who the regime determined it could not assimilate." The pigments from these fields became paints. Gamboge yellow became trapped in a war. War created death, death tainted nature, and natures commodity became art. An art that carried the weight of genocide. A million yellow memories forever embodied in future artworks such as delicate water color. We will never know all of the victims names, but the trees and subsequent artworks harbor their memory.

A Theravada Buddhist monk Angkor, Cambodia. | robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo.

The color yellow has historically been extracted from garcinia trees that are at least 10 years old and over 40 ft. tall. Break off a branch from its tall body and you expose the golden liquid contents. Prior to the 1970’s though, this pigment had many uses. One significant use was the dyeing of silk robes for the Cambodian Theravada Buddhist monks and in the painting of Chinese watercolors. An energetic and ethereal color of memory, glory, sacrifice, and dedication. In China and much of Asia, yellow is a respected color.. one of heroism and mourning .This color has been used as early as the 8th century but the pigment reached Europe via the East India Company in the early 17th century, and was used by famous artists such as Rembrandt, J.M.W. Turner, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was also used to make mixtures of Hookers Green.

Yellow is also the color most associated with memory. Humans recognize and remember yellow more than any other color because of its high visibility, luminance, and contrast with darker colors. Sticky notes and highlighters are yellow objects we use everyday to help us stay on task. Sticky notes became yellow by accident, but the color stuck because it stood out on a typical office desk of white paper and black pens. Because of yellows visibility, it is also a warning…yellow hazardous signs and warnings alert us to danger. Even our traffic lights warn us to slow down (or speed up) when we see yellow. Carlton Wagner, director of Wagner Institute for Color Research stated that you should "never paint a nursery yellow....In infants, it results in crying,'' he said. ''In adults, it results in shortness of temper. We notice a lot of fighting.''

Gamboge has been used medicinally, but with dangerous side effects. This yellow gum resin is a powerful laxative, and in large doses could kill you. In 1836, a British "quack" doctor, James Morison sold "Morison’s Vegetable Pills", touted as a miraculous cure-all. Morison was found guilty of manslaughter after his patient died because he advised him to take 35 (yellow) pills. Over a dozen people died from these pills... pills which contained high concentrations of Gamboge yellow.

Turns out many yellow pigments cause purging, Victoria Finlay states that “In fact, it is quite a characteristic of things that are vibrating at the yellow resonance, Gourds, unripe pineapple, yellow dock root and yellow flag irises all have the same violently purgative effect. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Indian Vedic tradition places yellow at the second chakra—the navel, just above the colon.’’ A different yellow called Orpiment (King's Yellow) was used on Egyptian papyrus scrolls. This pigment contained arsenic, and smelled terrible. Historical yellow pigments all seem to have common safety hazards. One more modern example is the standard American school bus. The early versions of this paint known as " School Bus Chrome" contained chromium, a stinky and dangerous heavy metal that accumulates rapidly in the body. I have heard old-timers complain about long barefoot walks to school, but that was likely a blessing since they got to avoid the poisonous yellow bus ride!

If you've had enough of all this purging, note that In some cases yellow is not so vile. It is used in commercial design to communicate sunshine, happiness and positivity, such as the yellow little burst on the Wal-Mart logo. Most people think of summer, citrus, flowers, stars, and overall positive energy. Vincent Van Gogh said that " Yellow has the power to charm God."

Children‘s movies capitalize on this color magic to change the mood of a character or scene. Joy, the lead character in the color-psychology laden kids movie Inside Out shows us the strong dichotomy of yellow. Joy is a go-getter, a happy, memory obsessed girl who is also perpetually disappointed if things aren't perfect. As much joy as yellow can bring, it tends to have a dark undercurrent. Most people love the yellow of sunflowers, a child drawn sunshine, and smiley faces ( hey those are kind of creepy though), but when yellow turns a darker shade, we run. We run because it reminds us of bodily fluids, insanity, or deceit.

Giotto di Bondone Arrest of Christ (kiss of judas) 1306 Fresco

Some cultures acknowledge the darker side of yellow by relating it to cowardice (yellow bellied) or illness, (yellow fever). Yellow was the last color Saint Francis wore before committing himself to an ascetic lifestyle. And in paintings like Giotto's Arrest of Christ, Judas can often be identified by wearing yellow, his deceptiveness visible on the outside. As far back as the 12th century yellow became an identifier for anyone who was a non-christian or "other". This unfortunate labeling was placed on Jews and despite their growing freedoms in the 19th century, they were doomed again when the Nazis resurrected the de-humanizing yellow badge.

In many European paintings yellow has been used to portray "bought love", stemming likely from yellow painted brothels, and the yellow medical cards (yellow tickets) required for Russian prostitutes in the 19th century. Apparently Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, adored yellow so much he even wore yellow contacts during his trial. In Russian, the phrase “yellow house” is a euphemism for a psychiatric institution inspired by the yellow-painted Obukhovskaya Hospital in St. Petersburg. In the Victorian short story Yellow Wallpaper, the main character states “It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw - not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.”

Our memory of Gamboge is fading away. As of 2005 Winsor Newton no longer produces gamboge "because of its toxicity." The genocide tainted color is not a great pigment to paint with either, because it fades so quickly, and scientist have created better alternatives. Colors can carry so much symbolism, cultural importance, and personal meaning. Yellow although positive and uplifting has a history of deceptiveness and protest. Journalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries coined the term " yellow journalism" for fake and sensational news. In France in 2019, workers used their yellow vests in protest over economic injustices. One timely example of its connection to protest is the Yellow stripe across the Ukrainian Flag. In 1918 the decision was made to reverse the stripes of the 1848 flag to reflect the symbolism of “blue skies over golden wheat fields.” The positivity of the yellow sky represents hope, freedom, and autonomy to the Ukranian people... it also could symbolize the political instability and vulnerability. This color is clung to by its people midst a torturous war, exemplifying this vivid hues ( both yellow and blue) in apparent incongruity. Yellow is eye catching and exciting, but its excitement wears off quick and its acidity leads to loss, confusion, and peril. In the current Russo-Ukrainian war, a Ukrainian woman calmly tells an invading Russian soldier he should carry a handful of sunflower seeds with him.“Put them in your pockets,” she says, “so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”

“Colors are sometimes soaked in blood. That’s just how it is.”- Reporter Jad Abumrad



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