Politics of appearence: las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Almost 40 years of extended performance.

By Giulia Cilla

Women of different ages protesting with images of their relatives

“The first time we went there we were 14 women, it was Saturday the 30th of April 1977, the next time it was a Friday, then a Thursday. At first, being very few, we did not march around the monument, as we do today, but we would simply sit on the benches. We spend the rest of the week talking to the mothers who denounce the disappearance of their children inviting them to join us in the square. When we were sixty women, the police made us get up from the benches by hitting us with clubs. They ordered us to leave, to move. And so, arm in arm, in small groups, we began to march around the monument in the middle of the square, so they couldn’t send us away. And we haven't stopped since.”                     

These women are mostly housewives. The housewives are mothers. But they started to rethink the meaning of this status quo: They put a white headscarf over their heads. As their peaceful helmet, as their symbol of self-empowerment and emancipation. So, the women politicize and collectivize motherhood making it a collective and visual practice as well as a political strategy.

And they took the public space: they took the square in front of the parliament, meaning they shifted the political space from a completely closed male and hierarchical dominated sphere.

The army, as well as many common people used to call them «locas y atrevidas» (brave mad old women). They tried to normalize them again, they tried to scare them, by simulating a public shooting because now the women became over 300 hundred, but the locas didn't stop circling the monument: (indeed) they all screamed FIRE!

At the time it (was) is more likely to experience a temporal crystallization: the women were alone and insisting through their circulating gesture and presence, to remind us viewers into their own temporality.                                                                                                                               
In fact, the gesture of circling may also be read as the visualization of an obsession which bring us back to the fact that they apostrophize the mothers as mad and mad people are inappropriate and mostly unsuitable to the present time, precisely because they juxtapose it to their own anachronistic chronology.

The relation between ethic, aesthetic and its duration, extremely extended in time, is crucial, and could be summarized not only in this collective gesture of circling (evoking a sort of secular ritual, that suggests the image of the Mecca pilgrims circling the dark stone), but also in the production of symbols (such as the use of the white scarf) in order to grant visibility, creating a dialectic response to the invisibility of the disappeared.

But in what sense may we consider it an extended performance?

Following Héctor Schmucler, we live in a time directed toward the cult of speed. But not only does memory need time, it needs to retreat; retreat to investigate itself. Memory is revision, while the show is constant news. The time of memory is the present, there is no memory in the past, we may only recall in the present tense. This is an inner and necessary condition for memory.

So this very act of circling might be understood as a practice of an ethic, as a continuous re-enactment of memorial time and its necessity of being re-enacted; as a gesture of resistance to the fluidization of time, as well as a practice of re-writing history as a living process.

Today, circling is more than a protest against amnesty (that, finally, is no more than an imposed oblivion), it’s the practice of the essence of memory, and the essence of memory is unceasing. Anyhow, justice is only a moment. Thus, justice does not repair evil, and evil never repeats itself twice in the same way.

The women's collective bodies draw an ellipse as a living sculpture.

The very conservative and individualistic figure of the housewife became the icon of revolution reprocessing the struggle of a younger generation, and in so doing, breaking the linear progressive process of historical transmission from one generation to the next. One might evoke the concept of touching histories of Roland Barthes, creating affective connections across time: In this case the connection passes not only through the performed gesture of the women-mothers or grandmothers (underling the familiar affective connection) and their action of physically turning but also through the embodiment of the role of the missing persons in a sort of generous gesture of borrowing the living body (and thus collectivizing it) to the missing.

In fact, they claim an impossibility: “aparición con vida” (appearance with life), expressed into the practice of an extended and thus obsessively repeated performance, which only death will stop. Because, as stated before, memory is ceaseless.

Thus, the women's bodies constitute the archive of their own aim to rewrite history, appropriating and fighting the youngest generation struggle. The bodily presence is crucial to this process in order to re-enact the absence of the missing.

In terms of visual politic, this was expressed by both the siluetazos as well as the marcha de mascaras as directly emanating from the mothers' march. On the 21st of September ‘83 the first Siluetazo took place. For the first time people joined the mothers in a public artistic action that lasted all day until midnight despite the presence of the army and the repression. In fact, this was still during the time of the regime. The idea was “to give the event another possibility of expression and temporal durability… The silhouettes made present the absence of bodies in a mise en scène of state terror. "

From then on the Plaza de Mayo entered a participatory time and temporality. 

*Giulia Cilla (1983) is a researcher, art teacher (secondary school), as well as Feminist Epistemology and Decolonial Art theory teacher at the University of Paris 8. In 2016 she obtained her Ph.D in Epistemology and Methodology of Artistic Production at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Photo: Giulia Cilla