Whispering White

cuello bordado
In the What-If Diaries, we have started with white. Thinking about white…its associations, its significances, its definitions. Words started to multiply in the forums: snow, angels, virgins, brides, sunlight, linen, home, moon, stars…

I wrote down some of the things that I think of when I think about white, and found it rather telling that, for me, anyway, white is not such a light or gentle thing. Could not relate to snow or anything frozen or cold. Thought of things like angels or glowing brides with a vague distaste. Realized that, in the tropical Philippines, white (fabric, anyway) was completely unnatural. White was introduced from somewhere else. Our own fabrics were earthy and strong-colored. It was the Spanish, coming along in the 1400s and colonizing, then Christianizing us, and turning the islands into a trading and military outpost  for their empire, who insisted on white clothing and white linens, who wore white because it was cooler in the tropical heat.

So, for me, white is the color of colonial history, of Catholicism and the Church. I think of bleaching. I think of erasure. It’s hints at occupation, oppression, an elite ruling class comprised of uncomfortable, over-dressed foreigners, gasping like pale fish in the liquid air of the tropics.


Looking at white in other ways, too…taking my cue from Jude Hill. White as translucence or transparency. As negative space. As absence. As the opposite of shadows and darkness. And yet, without one, there is no other…Daemon est Deus inversus.

Jude Hill asks, “What if light could be created by dark?” And vice-versa, I’m thinking.

shadow of lace

I took photographs of this embroidered head-covering. My mother made this, when she was a girl. She wore it to church, in the days when all the women covered their heads before entering a church, and the priest stood with his back to the congregation, talking intimately to God in Latin.

I’m not ready to cut it up for any fabric workshop, yet, but I let it inspire ideas. The embroidery on the veil used to be white, but when I was small I kept stealing this veil from her dressing room drawer, and she kept taking it back. Finally I took it with me up a mango tree, and tucked it away “safely” in a hollow in the tree trunk. Then forgot about it. It sat in leaf mould and beetles through a whole rainy season, balled up in that tree’s cavity. When I found it again, the white had yellowed. Distressed fabric. Distressed mother, too. She finally gave it to me just a few years ago.


Against the sun, the veil casts a shadow that is its opposite…the black net lets light through, the white embroidery blocks the lights, casts the darker shadow. Transparent darkness and opaque whiteness.

No projects gelling yet. Just a random eruption of little ideas…a flurry of fireworks, stars and bokeh when I close my eyes and look through the skin of my eyelids. I’m finding white difficult and prissy to approach.


I don’t own very much meaningful white fabric at all. We didn’t use white fabric at home for linens or curtains or anything like that…and I am not sentimental enough to drag away all my mother’s old fabric, even if we had. Leave the past where it is, I say, it’s just an encumbrance, something we carry around with us to make the ego feel more substantial, to give it more of a story to tell.


What can I use for this workshop? Back to the idea of trying to please our colonizers (who thought we were dirty, because we were dark) by whitening everything—fabric, skin. Today, many Filipinas still buy products with “skin whiteners”, and hide under umbrellas from the sun. And bathe three times a day—maybe because they hear that voice in their heads that tells them their skin is brown because it’s thick with dirt? Wash, wash, wash. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!…What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”

Thinking I may force my whites, by bleaching the life out of the colored fabrics that I do have.


19 thoughts on “Whispering White

  1. I love white on other people …. but I don’t feel comfortable in myself .. yes, a skirt or trousers. Off-white suits my face better. I just love your photos … how beautiful and delicate.


  2. I love how it started with an artist’s perspective (different artistic disciplines at that!) and evolved into a historical and cultural commentary. Being Filipina myself, I can relate. Just yesterday I attended a church function at our Temple and we were told to wear white. I had to borrow from my Mom and just realized I don’t own anything white because it indeed felt unnatural. Anyhoo, whatever you next do, white or no, I’m excited to see it. 🙂


  3. Thank you for this post. I had stumbled upon your blog for a different reason, and I was surprised to find that you are a Filipina American, because I am too! I appreciate your thoughts (which are beautifully articulated, by the way) on our complex relationship with having been colonized. It’s definitely something that I think about often. I look forward to your future posts, and I hope that all is well with you and yours!


  4. Gorgeous post (photos and words). My favorite line: “Leave the past where it is, I say, it’s just an encumbrance, something we carry around with us to make the ego feel more substantial, to give it more of a story to tell.”


  5. I always wondered why I was never such a big fan of white. I felt I always had to restrain myself with colors and expression but there it is, and it is culture and history and somewhere inside I feel the exact same way. up with whitening lotions. my yellow skin and thick mass of black hair, too much hair, well that is my hat and where I am from, the sun bites through your skull and my hat keeps me cool. thanks for this Nat


  6. Oh my, reading that was music to my eyes. If we lived in the same country I’d try and entice you to have a cup of tea with me just so we could chew on this topic in great detail. Such a meaty morsel white turned out to be for you. How fortuitous. It feels meaty to me because your images and words got my own philosophical pistons firing. You flipped my vision of white on its head… replacing its virtue of crisp cleanliness (in the design world at least) with an oppressive evil twin who is virtueless. We could also add to the mix the idea that white is technically not a color at all. Is it man-made or is a pure state? I may be geeking out on a limb here but topics like these with characteristics that can be endlessly flipped are so darn interesting.

    The story of your mother’s church veil reminded me of different but similar story about an inanimate object that connects me to my mother and our own sordid version of history. I loved the bit about how you tucked the lace away in an earthly cave where over time the natural environment reversed the effect of the baptismal bleaching.

    Looking forward to seeing how this exercise evolves for you. No pressure. 😉


    1. You know, sometimes I really do wish we lived in the same country. I would so love to have tea with you, and talk about anything at all…I think that between us we could flip any topic from here to the moon, and back. I do feel the lack of friends with whom to have this sort of exchange…
      I suppose I got carried away with the Catholic thing; it’s not that it isn’t a valid idea, but do I really want to get mired in that sort of angry, reactionary making? LOL i don’t have the energy to be a rebel for very long. It takes a lot of research and involvement to get something together that attacks it…I really don’t want to spend my days and nights wading through historical texts and photo archives of Filipinas in stiff white 18th century attire. Hah!

      Abstracted white a bit more…its qualities, tried to find the things that I do like about white fabric (here and now, minus the cultural baggage). Light and shadow, mainly. Also, the focus on texture. Hope this new direction does not disappoint! 😉


  7. these thoughts feed me. thank you
    and i don’t know how the wordpress will identify me, but this is grace from What if and windthread


    1. Hello, Grace! Thank you for the lovely comment and visit. Have you found your way to the whites yet? 😉 It’s been so difficult for me…not to come up with ideas, so much as to get excited about any of it. *sigh*


  8. Your lovely description of the dearth of white in your world makes perfect sense to me, but my devil’s advocate/unsolicited advisor insists on pondering. Bleached seashells? Ruffle of surf? Airy clouds? Moonlight? The page of a novel in the sunlight? I know you’ll find your way to white! (And it won’t be a white that anyone else imposed on you, either. It’ll be your very own.) I very much enjoy reading your posts, and look forward to the next one.


    1. Hi, Liz, Sure, nature is an obvious source of whites, but I was writing about fabric, only, because I will be working with fabric, and no plans to stick either sand or seashells to the work. I am wary of metaphors, or of any kind of illusion-making or representational things in art/craft.The whole “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” concept…not smuggling unrelated ideas into the piece, but making something wherein the piece…its materials, its qualities, its possibilities as well as its limitations, IS the message, y’know? Otherwise I’d be building sandcastles or surfing, instead. 🙂


  9. You write beautifully! I loved the description of the humidity as liquid air. How perfect. I live in Hilo, Hawai’i which is “the rainiest city in the US”, therefore quite humid, and I’ve always said, I like to feel the air I breathe”. But, I think in the future I will always think of it as liquid air. The picture of the lovely Filipino girl is so gorgeous. It reminded me of a Filipino wedding I was in where we all wore beautiful dresses like these with the same large flat sleeves. I look forward to your posts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s