The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Imagining and Storying Women’s Activist-Leadership Through the Disobedient Women Exhibition
By Darlene E. Clover, Introduction by Susan J. Erenrich
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Darlene E. Clover is Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Victoria. Her areas of research and teaching include community, cultural and feminist leadership, and arts-based adult education and research. Her current investigations focus on how museums and art galleries perform gender through exhibition representations. Her most recent co-edited publication is Adult Education and Museums: Animating Social, Cultural and Institutional Change (2016).
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features a column penned by Darlene Clover. Besides being an activist-leadership-scholar, Darlene is also an ILA Building Leadership Bridges author. Her guest column on the Disobedient Women Exhibition is a continuation of her exploration into gender misrepresentation in the world of museums.
In a larger context, Darlene’s piece illustrates how important it is to have safe, radical, open spaces for participatory democracy. It is within these open spaces for democracy, such as the one created by Darlene in Canada, that we can inquire, engage, and dissent. We can also “become a dynamic citizenry, unafraid to exercise our shared knowledge and power” (Williams, 2004, p. 86).
I hope readers enjoy Darlene’s article and the companion Wasn’t That A Time radio broadcast, Taking It to the Street, that aired after the massive January 21, 2017 Women’s March. The program is a retrospective on the long battle for women's equality. Throughout the show you’ll hear songs performed by: Peter, Paul & Mary; Nettie Metcalf; Jane Sapp; Judy Gorman; Judy Collins; Holly Near; Kristin Lems; Emma’s Revolution; and Jefferson Airplane.
Williams, T. (2004). The Open Space of Democracy. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
Imagining and Storying Women’s Activist-Leadership Through the Disobedient Women Exhibition
By Darlene E. Clover
History that comes not from the lofty perspective of ‘great men’, conquest and capital, but rather from below, the everyday, is always difficult to perceive. Its protagonists are rarely documented; theirs is all too frequently the untold story…To ‘disobey’ in order to take social action is a byword for the creative spirit… We have captured through this exhibition snapshots of women’s ‘Promethean acts’ - highly visible activities of resilience and imagination - and 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 with an essence of what Bachelard (1961) called “the spark behind all knowledge” (cited in Flood & Grindon, 2014, p. 7). Together, they are activist-leadership, a counter power of perseverance that places women squarely in the making of a more robust and just Canada. - Exhibition Curatorial Statement
In 2017-2018 I guest curated in collaboration with colleagues and students of the University of Victoria (UVic), Canada a multimedia feminist exhibition titled Disobedient Women: Defiance, Resilience, and Creativity Past and Present. The exhibition was curated first in a Victoria Arts Council gallery in central Victoria where it remained for three weeks. It then moved, and expanded in size, to the Maltwood Gallery on the UVic campus. It was to show at Maltwood for three months but due to popularity, was held over for one month.
Although the idea for this type of exhibition had percolated in my years of work as an activist-scholar of pedagogical aesthetics and leadership in community and later, museums and art galleries, its curation was galvanized by two inter-connected and unsatisfying conditions (Obrist & Raza, 2015). One was the positioning by the then Tory (Conservative) federal government of the Sesquicentenary of Canadian Confederation (2017) — the process by which the different provinces of Canada were united into the Dominion of Canada (a nation) in 1867 — as a story of white male heroism, war, ice hockey, discovery, and conquest. The imposition of this imperial masculine memory aimed to forestall any heresies that might suggest women had played a role in Canadian history, sexism and colonialism were deep imperfections in the national narrative or that this narrative had been met with creative and vigorous forms of resistance by women. The second and related unsatisfying condition was findings from my research into museums and art gallery exhibitions that painted a similarly problematic male heroic picture of Canada including altogether too many sanitized historical tales that erased, stereotyped, and/or marginalized women and ‘the other’ to the masculine norm.
Yet Obrist and Raza (2014) also remind us that unsatisfying conditions can be catalysts to “incite the imagination of new possibility” (p. 2). Disobedient Women was just such an act of imagination, an aesthetic coming together of art and politics. The exhibition spotlighted women’s activist-leadership, both in the past and the present, through images, stories, poems, and a variety of other creative practices. In this article, I share images and stories of the exhibition and also, its pedagogical impact.
Exhibitions as Public Pedagogy
We chose to use an exhibition format for reasons that relate to its power both visually and pedagogically. Cultural scholars Macleod, Hourston Hanks and Hale (2012), for example, describe exhibitions as narrative environments, storytellers that in visual and textual form, narrate stories about society, culture, arts, history, and people to mobilize certain memories. Indeed, we can say that exhibitions are both the messenger (the storyteller) and the message (the story). Telling stories matter because this is how meaning and sense are made of our complex, complicated, and lived realities and even of ourselves. Exhibition stories matter because they lend an authority and significance that deeply influences and convinces the audience of the permanence and stability of something about history and reality (Bartlett, 2016; Steeds, 2014). Building on this, exhibitions act as knowledge shapers and mobilizers. Through carefully choreographed representations — images, objects, explanatory texts, and even positioning and lighting — they activate the ‘seen’, and as this is often our most commanding sense, “what we see is considered evidence, truth and factual” (Carson & Pajaczkowska, 2001, p. 1). In other words, what we see (and of course what we do not see) narrated through highly visual stories plays a pivotal role in what we come to know as reality, and what we therefore believe to have merit and legitimacy. Given this, when we query whether or not it matters that a subject is seen or represented in the stories exhibitions tell, the response has to be a resounding, yes. But we must also consider how a subject or story is represented and who tells the story because the storyteller (which exhibitions are as I noted above) is equally important. All too frequently exhibitions continue to marginalize or stereotype the stories of women and ‘the other’. Without the power to see or represent themselves, women and those who fall outside the masculine norm will be left to the envisioning and storying (or not) of men (Bergsdóttir, 2016; Marshment, 1993).
Another element that drew us to use an exhibition format is its power to evoke the imagination (Bedford, 2014). Aesthetic exhibitions — those that use and include artforms — are visionary spaces that imagine and story other worlds, encouraging us through creativity to venture into things known yet unknown, familiar yet strange. This imagination, however, is never disconnected from the political values and ideologies and pedagogical aspirations of those who create the exhibitions, and this is certainly true of Disobedient Women . Our intent was specifically to encourage what is often called the radical and subversive imagination. The subversive imagination acts as a rebellion against the normative by creating alternative narratives that illustrate how, in our case, women’s resistance, resilience, and creative practices were being ignored in the national historical discourse surrounding the Sesquicentenary. These rebellious acts of subversive imagination that dare to state and render visible that which has been strategically obscured shock but they can also, according to Becker (1994, p. xiii), “be an object of outrage,” which I will speak to below. The radical imagination, I argue, is similar, albeit perhaps more pedagogical. It is the mobilization of a collective, conscious, creative force aimed intentionally to not only expose but also challenge the root causes of inequality and injustice. The radical imagination is “the capacity to think critically, reflexively and innovatively about the social world” and to act upon it (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2014, p. 2). What both types of imagination have is central to feminist exhibitions — a practice of interruption and disruption. Disobedient Women , in particular, intentionally aimed to interrupt the silencing and erasure of women’s stories and lives and disrupt the complacency of the national historical narrative espoused by the Tory government.
In summary, the exhibition format combines the power of storytelling, visualization, and imagination in ways that we felt could help us as feminist adult educators and activists to re-invigorate the public sphere, to engulf visitors cognitively, emotionally, and politically in a rebellious, radical, and intentionally feminist imagination, a defiant, colorful, resistive, and creative world made by the women of British Columbia who stitched, painted, drummed, recited, protested, or patiently knitted a different historical narrative.
Constructing Disobedient Women as a Space of Feminist Public Pedagogy
Up to now, curating a feminist exhibition sounded easy. I had read all the right literature, I had seen hundreds of exhibitions, and I was a feminist adult educator. The reality of course was quite different. When I proposed the exhibition, I assumed the gallery curators would simply take the items and, well, curate them. They soon disabused me of this misconception. They would hang the exhibition but I was to curate it — which meant I was to envision and imagine it into being. This included a great deal of ‘maths’ and working off blue prints to ensure that everything fit the available wall and floor space or glass cases. As feminists remind us, the imagination is a means of possibility, but it is also a pragmatist in terms of what can be given current restrictions (Manicom & Walters, 2012). Imagining and slotting into place the exhibition was made more complex because we had sent out a Call for items, objects, and narratives to women around the province and we had no idea what we would actually receive. We also commissioned eight artists to produce artworks on the theme of women’s disobedience and creativity and there too, we had little idea what they would create, as we gave no stipulations of genre, size, and so forth.
What It Looked Like
Disobedient Women turned out to be a multi-media exhibition characterized by beauty, grace, color, courage, vibrancy, expressive power, and vividness in both content and representation. While it is not possible in this limited space to describe everything, I sketch out below some of its main features. The images I’ve included tell their own stories. The exhibition included two video creations, one a story told through women’s bodies and slam poetry and the other an animated illustration of defiance. These required monitors, headphones, and electricity so that was a bit of a scramble. Also included in the exhibition were two sets of hand puppets, one, of women leaders from around the world, such as Wangari Matthias of the Greenbelt Movement, and another, of creatures that represented four aspects of Earth dwelling women. We also had received a series of contemporary protest buttons, which we set against a blanket from the 1970s that had a number of protest buttons attached. While there were differences in issues, the similarities, meaning the challenges and issues, remain astounding. The exhibition also included one installation, a bedside table loaded with bricks as a metaphor for violence, and a diorama of a woman’s bedroom from the 1960s era complete with feminist magazines, books, old phonographic records, tee-shirts, and posters. Other inclusions were single or multiple (a series) paintings, newspaper clippings of arrests at protest sites, activist quilts of varying sizes, poems, and even two decorated hard hats to accompany a story of a woman who worked for years in the trades — Hammering in a Man’s World.
The exhibition also contained four photographs from (Mis)Interpretation: Sikh Feminisms in Representation, Texts and Lived Realities, a critical Sikh feminist ethnographic exhibition that had been curated the previous year. Another photographic series was of the ACHoRd performance art piece that had been co-created by a group of 13 Indigenous and non-Indigenous women. The piece was performed on the steps of the BC Legislature as part of the lead-up to Canada’s Sesquicentenary to provoke thought and to challenge rather than celebrate. Disobedient Women also included life size mannequins in the costumes of the West Coast League of Lady Wrestlers, a women’s group that ‘wrestles’ with social and ecological issues such as oil pipeline expansion. The Raging Grannies, a robust group of older women who dress in costume and sing off key to raise awareness of issues relating to peace, the environment, and social justice were also featured. They had arrived at my office with green garbage bags full of everything from books they had written to a photograph of them heading naked into a freezing lake for the cause, from the lyrics of satirical songs to a full size cut out of them complete with feathered boa.
To ensure we had the greatest breadth possible and filled historical gaps, we also drew items from the Royal BC Museum and University of Victoria archives. We therefore integrated into the exhibition a photograph of a Women’s Institute with artist Emily Carr in the front row, a photograph of the First Chinese Women’s Auxiliary circa 1900, and copies of Zenith Digest, a newsletter edited by transgender woman Stephanie Castle. We wrote up stories to highlight women figures from the past that ranged from Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman in the BC Legislature (parliament), and Jill Carter, a homeless woman who worked tirelessly as an advocate for women living on the streets and who was an amazing poet. We also interviewed women like Indigenous Elder May Sam, who keeps the Cowichan sweater knitting practice alive by teaching it to youth. Extraordinary Indigenous artists such as Val Napoleon and Francis Dick submitted astonishingly beautiful paintings to the exhibition.
We organized an official opening for each exhibition, which included artists talking about their works, slam poetry, drumming, and songs by the Raging Grannies. In addition, we hosted two arts-based workshops (puppetry and photography) for students and community members around the theme “women, power and disobedience.”
How Did the Exhibition Work Pedagogically?
It is one thing to create a dynamic, feminist space of public engagement that aims to initiate reflection and dialogue and imaginatively illustrate political acts and stories and another to understand what learning actually took place for visitors as a result of this engagement. Indeed, how did the Disobedient Women exhibition function as a collective space of feminist public pedagogy? To find out, we left at the exhibition site comment cards and research forms upon which visitors could record ideas and reflections. We were astonished to find that at the time of dismantling the exhibition, 322 people had taken the time to complete a card or a form.
There were six types of comment cards, each one with an image from the exhibition and one of the following six questions:
- Which piece in the exhibition speaks to you most and why?
- What ideas does this exhibition suggest about gender justice?
- What does ‘feminism’ mean to you?
- What connections does this exhibition make between creativity, art and gender struggle?
- What is the most interesting thing you learned from this exhibition?
- What new ideas does this exhibition provoke about gender injustice, past and present?
The comment cards actually became part of the exhibition, as one of the students — an artist — had the idea of creating a clothesline installation on which visitors could pin the cards. The more detailed research form consisted of ten questions. The aim was to gather demographic information (age, gender identity, professional and educational background) and qualitative data in terms of why they had visited the exhibition, what they had hoped to learn, and their thoughts about gender, feminism, activism, and art. We also asked what images and/or stories stood out for them and why. The Master’s and PhD students and I also spent a number of hours each day at the exhibition site, noting down our visitor conversations and observations. We also did follow-up interviews with those visitors who had agreed to be interviewed as well as students from two classes who visited the exhibition as part of their courses.
What Did People Say?
The interplay of the representations of the past, the performance of memory, and the production of the present were key cultural, pedagogical, and political features of the exhibition and they had an extraordinary impact. I conclude this article by illustrating this through their words.
Resonating and Remembering: Trinidad Galván (2010) reminds us that what structures and shapes our worldviews as women “is intricately tied to the ‘living’ past’” (p. 347). This was manifest by the frequency of the term ‘resonance’ and its centrality to why so many had visited the exhibition and returned at least once or lingered: “It resonated so I stayed for over two hours;” “I went around fairly methodically.” Data showed many visitors had been involved in public actions as women or as the children of feminist mothers. Remembering, for many older visitors, “evoked for me a lot of feelings that I had early on in my life. I am 77 now.”
Connecting: For one participant, the exhibition gave her the sense of being “part of a larger struggle that matters as much today as it did then.” For another, it came from her feelings of exclusion and injustice and the need to re-connect: “[I came] because I was discriminated against as a young, university student — honours chemistry and [I am] enraged at the continuing domination of powerful…men…and [I am] delighted to be with women [who are] speaking truth to power.” Another visitor spoke to the power of the exhibition as a means to re-connect with her lost culture: “As an Indigenous woman disconnected from her culture, it was particularly meaningful to see elements here that spoke to female’s Indigenous strengths — sort of promising that I could be part of that too.”
Inspiring: Biesta (2012) believes critical interruptions through art can “prepare the terrain for political action” (p. 694). We saw this in the frequency of the word ‘inspiration’: “I was hoping to feel a sense of belonging, but I got much more than that, I found inspiration.” Finding inspiration was often linked to hope: “I came to get inspired. And I was. This exhibition has given me hope and strength. It is amazing to see these ‘bad-ass’ women.” Eight visitors wrote about how the exhibition had inspired them to think about how they could, in fact, use their own arts practice toward gender justice: “Art has such political power. I see that for the first time. I have never thought about art together with politics. I can do this with my own art.” Other participants wrote about how the exhibition had given them courage and a renewed faith in women’s power to make change.
Engulfing and Reflecting: Ellsworth (2005) reminds us that public displays such as exhibitions are important pedagogically when they draw the audience into other realities and experiences. This was exemplified in a number of visitor comments but particularly this one: “It takes you beyond the two-dimensionality of most exhibitions…it kind of came out at the viewer and brought you in.” The potential of being drawn into other worlds by the exhibition was also manifest in challenges to past assumptions.
People often talked about remaining at the exhibition for extended periods of time and even, returning a second time to peruse the narratives. As one visitor noted of Disobedient Women “it is a place where one could take time to learn, to spend time on things that drew you in and return to them without anyone moving you along.” Another added: “you have the space here, you have the time. You [the curators] allow us to study things at our own pace.” As Harris (2014) reminds us, “slowing down doesn’t in itself promise a better kind of education, or an increased opportunity for creative exploration and productive risk-taking, but it sets the condition for doing so” (p. 71). Other visitors also used the term ‘immersion’ and often linked it to the power of seeing things “represented so visually all around you in bright colours and beautiful stories.” This illustrates how Disobedient Women became, to borrow from Siegesmund (2013), a form of “playful aesthetic education”, “an open and fluid imagining” that allowed simple “delight” to be outcome (p. 303).
Realizing: One visitor admitted to a previous notion of activism as violent and how Disobedient Women had opened their eyes to the diversity of ways women act/ed in public, its power, and “the need for this.” For another visitor, “this exhibition showed me how speaking out and choosing not to follow the rules can be liberating.” And there were other teaching worlds into which participants were drawn. One was a new awareness of colonialism and its before unseen connections to gender. This is, of course, something Indigenous feminists have been drawing our attention to for decades and this visually powerful medium contributed to that struggle. For others, it was astonishment at just how many historical injustices, protested against by women in the past, remained today: “I never would have believed it. I was one of the women who thought equality was pretty much fixed. Geez.”
Understanding: Over 60 visitors filled out the What does feminism now mean to you? comment card. While many were clearly familiar with feminism, others, most of whom were younger or male, not surprisingly, were not, but they held forth about their new and exciting understandings: “Many different women exist under ‘feminism’. That is not what I had heard. But that is what I now see”; “That it [feminism] is fun and creative, inclusive and fierce and has a long legacy.” The term “fun” actually appeared 47 times in the data. Recognizing feminism’s historical and contemporary creative and playful political inventiveness is important to stem refrains that feminism is a relic of the past that is “implicitly unattractive and embittered” (McRobbie, 2009, p. 157).
Challenging:There were of course challenges to the exhibition. Some visitors walked out immediately once they realized it was a ‘political’ art show. As one visitor explained, “I only like nice art.” One comment card argued the term ‘disobedient’ was offensive because it referred to the misbehavior of children. This is, of course, not what the term means at all and this was articulated beautifully by another visitor: “For me it [disobedience] is a refusal to obey rules, to keep quiet as women have been taught to do.” However, this negative comment speaks to the power of language and its multiple meanings which, like images, are read differently. Our readings of exhibitions are, of course, informed ideologically and by where we are positioned. Another challenge was the behavior of a father with his son. Upon entry, the father began to instruct his son on what he called the “amateurishness” of the works and therefore on their creators as “so-called artists.” When his assumptions were challenged he quit the exhibition in anger. Two other comments expressed concern that men would not feel welcome in the space. Yet, many men visited the exhibition, left comments (often adding their names to comment cards), and also agreed to be interviewed. Of course, what is far more important is the fact, and I have said this before, that literally hundreds of exhibitions across Canada and worldwide exclude women’s artworks or histories yet this, for the most part, is accepted.
For Bartlett (2016), feminist exhibitions are important when they act in “the service of remembering feminist activism” (p. 310). For many visitors, as this study illustrates, the exhibition was a powerfully affirming space of remembrance, a place where they could reflect on the past and why speaking out matters (and continues to matter) so much. But, it was also a space of remembering/connecting with culture, with a past that had been taken away, a voice that had been silenced. Remembering past activism is important because it reveals that gender and colonial injustices remain with us and that we need to continue efforts for change.
If encouraging activist-leadership is a critical element of feminist exhibitions, then Disobedient Women acted as an uplifting source of inspiration to activism, as visitors reflected on how the possibilities of their own artwork could become forms of aesthetic activism.
Importantly as well, the exhibition created a critical conscious about gender issues in the form of new understanding of women’s contributions to community and also about feminism and activism. Rendered visible was feminism’s simultaneous capacity to engage in deep critique as well as its capacity for humor, satire, and fun. The issues are critical, the forms of disruption inspiringly imaginative.
In so many ways, this exhibition was a space of possibility that reinvigorated women’s sense of self and agency — the personal and the collective. It also angered but galvanizing strong emotions either way makes it an important public pedagogical vehicle. Having said this, it is important to note that as a non-permanent exhibition, Disobedient Women would not be able to maintain its impact. However, the same can be said of any short duration educational activities such as community workshops and even three-month university courses. The potential of an exhibition like this lies in its ability to make connections, encourage remembering and reflection, and inspire. Disobedient Women did not change the world, but it constituted an important public arena in which people could learn, test, examine, imagine, reflect, and quite possibly come to act in the interests of the public good, what Biesta (2012) calls ‘publicness’.
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Photo Credits: Courtesy, Darlene Clover