Color, A “Conflict Mineral”

Grace Moon
Adjunct Professor
Graphic Design, Dept of Art
Queens College, CUNY

As many artists and designers are moved to take up social practice in their works, considering social, environmental and economic inequalities, have we paused to consider the very materials used to express our values? Our printing ink, paints, and dyes are products produced and sourced through a vast international supply chain controlled by the colorant industry with raw materials often originating in conflict zones. Many of these raw materials are considered by the U.S. State Department, “conflict minerals” (Section 1502 Dodd-Frank Act).

The colorant industry, run by multinational corporations in the developed world, profit from unregulated mining practices in developing countries. Much like “blood diamonds”, “conflict minerals” originate in destabilized war zones, in which corrupt local governments and/or armed militias control and profit form the mineral trade, exacting human rights abuses and perpetuating extreme poverty. Nowhere is this scenario starker than in Africa, host to the largest mineral industry in the world, yet home to ten of the poorest countries whose extreme poverty index runs between 57% – 88%.

While Artist colors make up a tiny fraction of the overall colorant market, these very colors are procured from the same chemical corporations that supply the automotive, plastics, coatings, pharmaceutical, and textiles industries. The following is a very brief description of a few minerals used in color making and where they are mined. Cobalt, used to make blue and violet colors, and Tin, used as a mordant in dyes are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rutile the ore, which makes Titanium Dioxide is mined in Sierra Leone. Copper mined in the Congo and Zambia is the chemical base for phthalocyanine colors. Zinc mined in Namibia is used to make white pigment and its by-product, cadmium, is the basis for reds and yellows.

While I focus here on color, “conflict minerals” are used in digital devices, and almost everything in our fabricated industrial world. As social practice becomes more important for artists and designers who are moving toward environmental, social and communal concerns, the key ingredients of our very materials must also be take into consideration.