Disobedient Women: Defiance, Resistance and Creativity Past and Present

Resistance lies in self-conscious engagement with dominant, normative discourses and representations and in the active creation of oppositional analytic and cultural spaces.

Chantal Mohanty, 1989, p. 208

History that comes not from above, from the lofty perspective of ‘great men’, state or capital, but rather, from below, is always difficult to perceive. Its protagonists are rarely documented; theirs is an untold story. This exhibition responds to two ‘untold stories’ in Canada.

Firstly, in 2015 the government of Canada announced its plans to celebrate its sesquicentennial of Confederation. Excluded from the official historical narrative of men’s hockey, discovery and war, were the stories, accounts, artworks, knowledge and activism of women who have for decades, overtly and covertly challenged and subverted patriarchal and colonial authority, power and gender injustices and constraints.

Secondly, exhibitions for art galleries and museums are rituals of power. They show us and tell what stories, artworks, narratives, and objects are to be valued, and by exclusion, what are not. The inclusion of ‘some’ and the exclusion of ‘others’ is a means to control the parameters of knowledge, identity, aesthetics, and who and what has historical, social aesthetic, and cultural significance. Yet exhibitions can tell different stories and act as educators, meaning makers and meaning-shapers in new ways. Exhibitions can be constitutive processes that shapes life’s journeys, journeys fraught on the one hand with potholes, cul de sacs, speeding traffic, and broken pavements but on the other, an exhilarating ride of innovative stories of activism and protest artworks that provide an opportunity to celebrate, laugh, learn and share the wonder of women and transwomen in this country.

Disobedient Women profiles a selection of the practices, stories, artworks, imaginings, and creativity of women from Vancouver Island and beyond. This multimedia of disobedient artworks, puppets, videos, stories, photographs, tee-shirts, collages, quilts and objects was drawn from the University archives, conferences, workshops and the studios of contemporary artists.

This exhibition is a weaving of political, gender and social identities and objects that offer shifting representations of past and present. It tells us the past matters, and it is important to honour the struggles of the women who came before, who risked their freedom, and even their lives to defy the restrictions of gender, to force the doors of injustice, to shout against racism, or to defend their culture and their land. They showed strength of purpose, bravery, and ingenuity. This exhibition also shows our extraordinary contemporary capacity to preserve difference whilst making common cause with the experiences of others to build solidarity across boundaries, tensions, contradictions, and power imbalances.

‘To disobey’ in order to take action is a byword for the creative and courageous spirits present and absent. We have captured through this collection a snapshot of a series of ‘Promethean acts’ at once highly visible activities of resistance and imagination, yet equally, less visible acts, small disobediences that are part of the daily workings of women’s lives in an unjust world. Together they are clever, well thought out, patiently pursued and the essence of what Bachelard (1961) called “the spark behind all knowledge” (p. 7). Together, they are a counter power and narrative, and an illustration of perseverance that places women squarely in the making of Canadian history.