Willful Subjects

About the exhibition

Curated by Yusuf Ali Hayat

Willful Subjects acknowledges experiences of living in societies which are racially and ethnically diverse. It questions why prejudices based on racialized segregation and a fracturing of cultural cohesion persist, and invites audiences to think the world and relationships differently. The exhibition features three sets of texts projected onto the gallery walls under the following headings – Unburdening, Unyielding, Imaginings. Unburdening exposes some of the ways racism manifests in everyday interactions. It is a space to externalise and release experiences of racism. Unyielding honours the willingness to be unwilling to conform to the demands of a monoculture. The text here includes truths we hold that keep people connected to language and culture despite negative experiences and pressures to integrate. Finally, the exhibition shares the responsibility for social justice outcomes with a broader audience through a series of provocations to imagine possible futures and different ways of being. Imaginings are gifts to an unknown receiver that send ripples out into relationships and the world outside the gallery. 


Catalogue essay

in the wrong way

leah jing mcintosh

“…someone becomes described as willful insofar as they will too much,
or too little, or in ‘the wrong way’” —Sara Ahmed[i]

In the colony, to exist in a racialised body seems always to be in the wrong way. In the colony, the racialised body becomes a body in the way, an obstruction to the colonial project. In the colony, the racialised body becomes a wrong body, a body to be burdened; expected to yield; blanched of imagination then saturated with colonial memory, amnesiac and cruel. The colony demands willingness from its subjects—a willingness to look away from this country’s violent histories; a willingness to accept things the way they’ve always been, when this colony is barely a blip on the history of this land. A willingness to ignore the genocide concealed in the word ‘unceded’. A willingness to buy into the slippery promises of meritocracy. The colony demands a willingness to accept such cognitive dissonance, and a willingness to perpetuate it.

I have been asked to read this exhibition alongside Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects (2014). As Ahmed writes—‘to be identified as willful is to become a problem.’[ii] White supremacy seeks to fix the problem of the willful Other, and the solution is both bloody and banal, insidious and overt, always disturbing and never unexpected. Ahmed writes that the charge of willfulness ‘compromises the capacity of a subject to survive, let alone flourish.’[iii] Yet surely one’s survival was always already compromised, this resistance appearing in response to the racism that presses down, sinking into the chest, threatening collapse. To be willful is to refuse this weight. In Unburdening, racist slurs are sloughed off. Does a record of cruelty diminish its burden? I am uncertain. The power of these words is now redirected, as the artist places their burden on their audience. Crucially, we are not left stranded in these disclosures. With Unyielding, artists provide a map for protest and resistance. Ahmed, again—‘mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.’[iv] This is not to claim that every racialised person seeks to resist the colony, or that every act of resistance is intentional. It is simply to ask: what is coded as disobedience? Who is considered willing, and who will only ever be seen as willful? When does persistence slide into resistance? And, most importantly: what forms can refusal take? A map for a racist terrain is not useful if we cannot see what we are moving towards. Imagining asks us to co-create a world—to build a forest of words, and then to walk there. Verdant and lush. These artists propose a world to come, a world where one is not too much or too little or even at all in the wrong way. A world where a body can be a body can be a body. Where one cannot be in the way of a project that does not exist. Where to remember is not resistance but the way forward. Ahmed, to send us off: ‘Perhaps willfulness is an optimistic relation, a way of holding on, of not giving up.’[v]

[i] Sara Ahmed, 2014, Willful Subjects (Duke University Press; Durham), p.3
[ii] Ibid, p.3
[iii] Ibid, p.1
[iv] Ibid, p.2
[v] Ibid, p.174

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