A Political History of the Colour Red

Manuel Pessoa de Lima, looking quizzical, in a green 1960s bathtub
Composer and Artist Manuel Pessoa de Lima

Composer and artist Manuel Pessoa de Lima talks with Jessica Aszodi about his research into the political history of the colour red. We learnt a few things we didn’t know about power, vulnerability and Brazil.

A research project by Manuel Pessoa de Lima, with help from Jessica Aszodi.

Tell me about your first memory of the colour red

When I think of red, I think of some trauma. My little brother’s face soaked in red after a massive crash on his bike. My lost red toy (I was four and had a miniature Londoner bus that I left on a bench at the playground). It was the first time I remember the feeling of loss. I wish I could uncover my lost memories of red, a color I never actually identified with. Not my favorite. Didn’t think of it. But red makes you remember. Can’t remember the pain, but can remember the blood.

Tell me about the colour red in Brazilian history.

Brazil was named after its first wiped out natural resource: brazilwood, known for producing a valuable red dye. Its etymology also relates to embers. One year after the Portuguese arrived, before they named Brazil Brazil, they named it: Land of the Holy Cross. The flag used at that time came from what was known before as the Knights Templar order. In Portugal, called the Military Order of Christ – whose flag constituted a Red Cross on white background. It is estimated that nearly 3 million natives lived in Brazil by the time of Portuguese arrival. In 150 years that population dropped to less than a million. The red in the flag, however, is a reference to the blood of Christ. While red is present in most flags from African states as the blood of its people, in the green and blue colors of what later became the Brazilian flag, its absence is a crude expression of a violent subtraction. 

Urucum (Bixa orellana) – a red dye obtained from a fruit is of major importance for the Xavantes, one among many indigenous nations still fighting for survival in Brazil. Red is also the color of Xango and Exu, two important Orishas in the Afrobrazilian religion of Candomble, whose symbolism can’t be ignored while thinking of the meanings of red in Brazilian history.

Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro has said “the Brazilian flag will never be red”. He was referring to the red of left wing political parties. Today it is considered unsafe to wear red in protests. 

Red appears on many national flags. What are some of the ways red has been used symbolically on those flags? I’m particularly interested to hear examples from the global South.

The history of flags encompasses an intricate mesh of faith, fight and power. No wonder red is the most present color on national flags, appearing on more than 70% of them. Muslim aniconism (avoidance of icons) made flags of Muslim religious orders particularly relevant in the development of reduced color schemes. The Pan-Arabic colors present on flags of Arabic countries are red, white, black and green and carry a strong Islamic symbolism. 

Before national states, red was the color of royalty. In the middle ages it symbolized the blood of Christ. While the red of many state flags are related to a diffuse set of meanings like struggle, strength or bravery, they usually can be traced back to some expression of religious conflict. The actual Danish Flag can already be found depicted in 1219, and its cross which originated the pattern of Nordic countries flags is an important emblem on military religious orders during the crusades. Apart from parts of Asia, to speak of  national flags in the global south is to revisit the trauma of colonialism. The Pan African colors – red, yellow and green – pay tribute to the colors on Ethiopia’s flag, a country particularly resistant to invaders. Red being the bloodshed of freedom.

Talk to me about red and power. 

Fire epitomizes power, while blood relates to danger and mortality. In parallel with the development of tri-chromatic view by our ancestors (which allowed us to see the color red) the danger-power binomial shaped human evolution within natural selection. The many different ways cultures deal with these two instances can give an idea of the multitude of meanings of red.

In China, red is commonly associated with luck, in the Netherlands, with sex. In this sense red reveals more about, for example, how luck and sex relate to danger and power, than about red itself. Semiotically speaking, red is a sign par excellence (no wonder ochre was the main pigment on most cave paintings.)

In Pharaonic Egypt, when artificial pigments were already commercialized as a luxurious good, red was seen as a sign of female power. The Old Testament refers to the use of makeup, as in the passage describing Pheonician princess Jezebel’s femicide: “…And she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window… They threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall.” Cleopatra was also known for wearing reddish henna based nail polish. The Roman purple, made from a special dye of particular brilliance and resistance, was restricted to figures of power: priests, magistrates and military commanders. Dressing entirely in purple, however, was an imperial privilege. The historian Seutonius recounts the story of an insolent youth that dared dressing entirely in purple being arrested and put to death during the reign of Caligula. 

In Christianity, fire & blood and its association with the binomial danger-power acquired a new role. Fire became associated with the flames of hell and blood with the transcendent blood of Christ, in an inversion where fire (technology) no longer relates to power, being replaced by Jesus’s sacrifice, while the Promethean fire of human knowledge became the threatening red apple, offered by the serpent. Secular and religious power had in the color red a common denominator – now legitimized by its spiritual counterpart.

Red mantles also designated royalty. The predominance of red on national flags has a strong echo of medieval heraldry and in coats of arms, where religious wars and secular power shared their spoils.

The Prammatica del Vestire, an inventory of women’s wardrobes in Florence between 1343-1345 kept by the government for tax purposes, reveals that red was also a predominant color among the upper class.Long story short, red is about power. Danger is also about power.

Then it comes the political red. The red of the revolutions. The red of love. And the red of the bourgeoisie: pink. Red also became the color of the left and gained its political traction in the protests leading to the French revolution where red flags were used as warning signs. Soon to become the symbol of its martyrs’ blood.

Many of the Pan-African flags have red as a symbol of their struggle. The USSR and Chinese flags also carry the political red. Neither imperial, royal, christian or aristocratic; the political red aimed for the people. Malevich painted in 1915 a red square naming it “Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions”. The monochrome gives to the title the political potency of total red.

In the grips of its power, red, a color previously associated with the left, was co-opted by the extreme right of Nazism. And has also been co-opted by other totalitarian regimes.

Red came to be tamed by blue (also a symbolic heritage from French revolution) present in the flags of the allies in the second world war. Red got domesticated by sweet sodas and Christmas ads. Placid, a blue background gives an appearance of restful neutrality on facebook. Today, the social change dreamed by the left rests in the small, eye-grabbing, red notifications. 

How did red become the colour of communism? How did red become the colour of National Socialism?

I started reading some time ago a book named “The Red and the Real”, naively thinking I would finally get some grasp on both subjects. The fact is that the book basically discusses if colors exist. Or if they are just on our heads. And if our heads exist or not. And if existence exists. And so on. 

Could I ask the same about Communism? I mean, it definitely exists in my head, I genuinely try to have a communist heart (although I have a pretty neoliberal sexual life I must say). I downloaded a book about the history of Communism (but haven’t read it). So far what I know is that it all came from this red flag in the french revolution, but of course, history is always a bit more complicated than wikipedia tells it. Actually, the French Revolution is an extremely complicated topic having a lot to do with the establishment of National states in the left-right polarity. As the taking down of the ancient regime, took a lot of fight in the streets, the red flag was a dispositive used to warn the protesters.

When you start noticing that your lover actually believes in meritocracy, that’s also a red flag. And the expression comes from the revolution. The story tells that people were protesting in Paris and the mayor noticed that a huge clash was about to happen between the “imperial guard” and the protesters, so he ordered the red flags to be shown as a warning to the protesters. Too late. The army opened fire, killing many. The flag was then soaked in blood, and that is the symbolic rise of political red.

The Communinst red, the workers party red, are expressions of this political color. So far red was a color related to Royalty and Christ. Now red meant an immanent totality. The way it was simply co-opted by the National Socialist Party (which revealed pretty quickly to be an extreme right wing party) has a lot to do with right-wing populism, which uses the anger of the oppressed as fuel.

The color red is the color of a strong political ideal. The question that remains is, if it’s real? The consequences are extremely real, but there is a discrepancy between the assertiveness of red and self awareness, which is, by definition, less sure of itself.

What does the colour red do to you? What do you/we do to it?

I work with the color red since 2013.  Red came for me as an alert, as a blinking square in the middle of my Cal Arts Audition, which actually marks the start of my artistic work. Before that, I was a music student and composer working by commissions, but I never did work that I felt was really something. Red came with it and it is not only complementary but also antagonistic with my personality. I am never confrontational. I am insecure and I am not very sure of anything, or at least, I think I am not sure of anything. Red is a sign you can’t ignore, whatever it means, it means strongly. I am skeptical of inflamed revolutionary discourses: the political red is one of disillusion. But still, there is blood in the streets. We fuck it up, but red is true to itself. Red has been historically associated with power, but to me, red is vulnerability. This apparent contradiction carries a lesson that it is frequently ignored in politics: red masks vulnerability with its strength. It is the color that reminds us of our mortality (I am horrified when I see blood), and at the same time is the color that inspires potency. Hence the middle aged man buying a Ferrari. The same thing goes with red being the “color of love”. We want to see love as ravishing, intense and powerful. In the same way we need to rethink power, we need to rethink love. The lesson red has for us, is the one of vulnerability. 

Do you want me to tell the audience how we came to have this conversation about the colour red?


Manuel Pessoa de Lima is a Brazilian performer-composer. Works with the color red, is interested in the theme of failure and creates site-specific performances with confessional elements. Currently based in Berlin, develops solo performances with speech, sound, video and red light. Themes in his work often include creating irony around the notion of high culture, destabilizing the traditional concert setting. Exploring failure is a theme of great interest developed in his most recent solo “The Failed Pianist”, featured at the Send-Receive Festival (Canada) and at the Schloss Solitude Summerfest (Germany). Lima has a digital release through Cafe Oto with his work 36 English to Portuguese Lessons, and his latest album Realejo (Organ, whistles and electronics) is out by Black Truffle. Holds a doctoral degree in the Performer-Composer program by CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) and has performed his solo work in Antwerp, Berlin, Brussels, Melbourne, London, Los Angeles, Tel-Aviv, Stuttgart, Winnipeg and São Paulo. Awarded by Vitae Foundation and by the Culture Secretary of State (ProAc). He has composed for cinema, contemporary dance, theater and television.