Colors have histories; they also have politics and cultures. These interesting positions are explained in a book edited by Sungshin Kim entitled The Use of Color in History, Politics, and Art. In the introduction to the book, the author, a historian of East Asia, talks of how the most accessible way to historicize color is to locate it in within the history of taste.
Tastes like politics change. And our sensing of colors undergoes similar shifts.
One of the most original points raised though in the book is mentioned in the said introduction: “The rise and fall of colors is also a history that has to be told in a material key, involving man’s relationship with nature as well as the transformation of economic forces.” The examples given to illustrate the statements are amazing. She mentions the color, “Imperial purple” which was important in the Ancient Mediterranean and how the production of the said color came from pigment extracted from sea snails, this fact part of one of the papers in the book was written by Michael Proulx. Another example, described in the book as bizarre, is the origin of a color named “mummy brown”, the origin of which was traced to Egyptian mummies. This, according to the book, led to “centuries-long trade in these embalmed corpses.” The color was supposed to be a deep brown and was commonly used by Western painters from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. There was one exception, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones who, once he heard of how the mummies were ground, “abandoned the color, ceremonially burying his last tube.”
Even in our simpler world of perception we know colors are not simply used for what they are because we know colors are not merely what they are. We have ingrained meanings in colors; we have imputed characters to their shading and tonalities.
These meanings and significations are, however, arbitrary. Cultures play a great part in the attribution of importance to a color and politics contributes its own power over a hue. This arbitrariness is only perceived by the observer. Within each human tribe, the meaningfulness assigned to colors and the manner by which it is accepted is natural, organic.
If we bring these ruminations on colors into our present-day politics, then everything makes a lot of sense. We as a people have a past with colors. If we are to return to the time when there were just two political parties dominant, the Liberal and the Nacionalista, the default colors then were the blue and red of our flag. In 1969, Imelda, already manifesting her own brand of politics, rallied behind the color “Blue,” with her Blue Ladies. These were society ladies on her side, dressed in smart, blue dress, who campaigned in slums and factories. There was no opposing color though: Minnie Osmeña, the elegant and famous daughter of Sergio Osmeña, formed the Osmena Pearl or Pearls, younger women, also dynamically campaigning for the Liberal Party candidate. The pearl proved to be not the right rallying symbol in politics.
Colors and icons only work when they participate in binary relationship, where one of the oppositions either becomes the positive and the other the negative. Remember, the EDSA “Revolution” and the arrival of saints and other icons? What could be placed against the image of Our Lady of Fatima or the La Naval de Manila? Not another set of icons. What happened was we had these blessed images, on one side and, on the other, tanks and soldiers.
It was Aquino – the death of Ninoy and the ascendancy of Cory—that created a potent color. That was Yellow. It stood for everything that was free. Not even the tripartite colors of red, white, and blue, could stand up to that bright color. The confetti that were showering from the tall buildings in Makati when the weekly rallies began to be held after the assassination of Ninoy were all shredded from the Yellow Pages of the telephone directories. When yellow ribbons tied around posts and tucked on anything became the sign of protest, the yellow color had already assumed a life of its own. Sui generis. No one cared about the origin of that symbol. Who cared then or who cares now that the yellow ribbons were all culled from that kitschy song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn? Or that tying a yellow ribbon was an older practice, going back to the 18th century, when women or girls tied ribbons around their hair to signify that they were waiting for boyfriends or husbands out in the warfront, or in jail?
And something happened: the same color of power became the point of assault for those who rallied against the events and people behind it. Think of the present engagement when other factions call another Dilawan, turning the label into an accusatory voice and pushing the one being branded as such into a defensive mode.
No other time in our politics has color been a key concept to our understanding of power, democracy and the ability to choose a party and candidate. While some parties are quick to dismiss the issue of color, the bandwagon of support behind Leni Robredo has become dramatic because of the pink color.
In that book, The Use of Color in History, Politics, and Art, the editor, Sungshin Kim cites the paper of Amy Hagenrater-Gooding, when she writes of how “the color pink is almost completely intertwined with the apparatus of mass consumption that employs and reproduces its gendered connotation.” Indeed, for when Robredo released the pink motif, the men who support her posted their photos online in pink, with the caption: Real men wear pink.
Image courtesy of Jimbo Albano