The Colour White: Damas de Blanco

Andreas Beer

The colour white has a wide spectrum of metaphoric and allegoric situational usages. In European, Judeo-Christian societies and those influenced by them– e.g. via (cultural) imperialism –white is usually connected with the light and breath of the Holy Spirit and thus regarded as being connected to notions of innocence, purity (in the sexual sense as well, for example in the bride’s white dress) and peace (as in the iconic image of Picasso’s white dove). These associative fields predestined the colour to be incorporated prominently into actions of protest, revolt and resistance. In movements like the Cuban Damas de Blanco and the Argentinian Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the colour white is furthermore closely entangled with gendered notions of the nation state. The Damas protest the ongoing imprisonment of their family members after the 2003 “Black Spring” Cuban-state repression campaign by attending Catholic mass every Sunday dressed in impeccable white and then marching through La Habana’s streets (fig.1), while the more famous Madres have been formed to commemorate their children which have been “disappeared” (meaning kidnapped by state security forces during the years of the dictatorship, and then supposedly tortured and killed) as well as the insufficient dealings with these atrocities after Argentina returned to democracy. They gather in the central Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires wearing white scarves (which they combine with blue dresses to represent the national colours) with photographs and pictures of their family members and then silently stand or walk around the place (fig.2). Their white scarf has become so famous and iconic that stencils and graffiti of it have appeared on the Plaza de Mayo, transforming the plaza into a national lieu de mémoire that is not bound by the bodies of the madres alone (fig.3).

These movements, which– as their respective names suggest –are almost exclusively incorporated by female members, articulate their dissent with national configurations of (the absence of) representative democracy (Cuba) or the consequences of recent dictatorial regimes (Argentina). They use typical forms of direct action like public marches or sit-ins, speeches and declarations via the (international) mass media to further their causes, and have opted for a corporate appearance in which the colour white features prominently. The white dress or scarf of the women prefigures their peacefulness, suggesting that they do not aim at being violent trouble-makers, but that violence perpetrated during their protests will emerge from repressive security forces. The powerful image of blood-stained white clothes with its deep reverberations in Catholicism is something that state security and police forces in Latin American societies will strongly aim at avoiding.

The colour of their dresses is sutured into their hierarchical role in the traditional family: As madres and damas they are those who have to mourn the loss of their kin; yet, by doing this publicly, they confront the nation state and its representatives with the suppressed grief that everybody within the imagined community of the nation-state-as-family should feel. The silence (the blank communication concatenated with the whiteness of their clothes) or even repression they often face underlines the shortcomings of the metaphorical fathers of the nation– i.e. the presidents and mostly male representatives –to acknowledge past wrongdoings and institutional neglect. The initially very violent reactions against the madres and the damas which was not limited to security forces, but extended to bystanders of their public displays of grief, can be linked with the deliberate crossing of the women from the domestic into the public sphere, from the house(s) into the plaza(s), where their gendered role would traditionally grant them special protection from violence, but where their interference into the “male domain” of politics transcended and thus problematized clear-cut gender boundaries.

The metaphorical innocence suggested by their white garb does not extend to political silence; many damas and madres have gradually eschewed the confines of the silent marches and have spoken out publicly against perceived evils in their respective societies.

Obviously the strength of their protests is founded on traditional understandings of gender roles, an infringement that the damas and madras confront only to a certain degree; a fact that has garnered them some criticism, especially when, like in Argentina between 2007 and 2015, a female head-of-state confounds easy gender binaries. Yet, it is still the case that male antagonists to state power and state repression tend to operationalise quite different physical and affective imageries: they often showcase either semi-naked bodies covered in scars, painted messages or other images that pinpoint their status as sufferers or protesters, or black clothing which gestures towards militancy and clandestinity. The female body, which in a patriarchal paradigm of family, nation and society cannot be shown naked in public, has to be clad in colours that suggest those bodies’ innocence, purity and peaceful intentions – even if this runs counter to the specific actions undertaken. While the madres and damas, aware of these gendered confines of their situation, chose the colour purposefully to further their cause, they cannot escape the logics adherent to it.

fig. 1: Javier Galeano, n/a (photography accompanying the European Parliament’s webpage for the Sakharov Prize 2005), La Habana (Cuba), AP Photos. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sakharovprize/en/laureates/1999-2009.html#laureate11
fig. 2: Liliana Giambelluca, n/a, 02 May 2015, Indymedia. http://argentina.indymedia.org/news/2015/05/875829.php
fig. 3: Banfield, Pintada pañuelos en la Plaza de Mayo, 12 July 2007, creative commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pintada_madres.jpg

Bibliography:

  • Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt: Hegemonic Masculinity. Rethinking the Concept. In: Gender and Society, 19.6 (2005), pp. 829–859.
  • McClintock, Anne: Family Feuds: Gender, Nationalism and the Family. In: Feminist Review, 44 (1993), pp. 61–80.
  • Nagel, Joane: Masculinity and Nationalism. Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21.2 (1998), pp. 242–269.
  • Reeser, Todd W: Masculinities in Theory. An Introduction. Chichester, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell 2010.

About the author:
Andreas Beer holds in PhD in American Studies and is a postdoctoral fellow at Constance University (Germany). His current research examines symbolic practices of (non-)representation in contemporary cultures of dissent. For more information on his person, project and publications, please visit: www.andreasbeer.info.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Andreas Beer: White: Damas de Blanco, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 13 January 2016, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/421.


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