Gemma Nash: Artist

Using sound to reimagine stories about people, places and objects

Shoddy, Subversive and Stunning – Disability Arts, Then and Now

DAIL Magazine
DAIL Magazine
Maria Oshodi, Extant Image: BBC Ouch
Maria Oshodi
Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944
Ramesh Meyyappan by Leila Romaya
Ramesh Meyyappan by Leila Romaya

Introduction …

Recently I was asked to speak at an event as part the UK Disability History Month celebrations.  Organised by Gill Crawshaw, Exhibitions Co-ordinator at Inkwell Art, the event – What is Disability Art? – was set up to promote a new and exciting disability arts project ‘Shoddy’ in Leeds. It also created a space for discussion around access to the arts for both disabled artists and audiences.

Crawshaw states “Shoddy is the name for new cloth created from woollen waste and recycled fabric. This original meaning is now largely unknown, and the word has come to mean of inferior quality, shabby, broken-down.  We will be challenging any assumptions that our work, and our-selves, are inferior, broken-down, second-rate or badly made”.

The event included a short fictional film by the acclaimed filmmaker Liz Crow and a brief documentary from disabled theatre directors Maria Oshodi, Jenny Sealey and Garry Robson. I started my presentation by posing three questions to the audience: What is disability art? Who produces it? Who is it for? Responses included:

“Art is art, who cares about disability!”

“There can be a dual identity relating to being disabled, and being an artist.”

“Art that is produced with the intention to challenge abilist norms, or wider. society.”

The responses made it clear that ideas around disability art are not limited to a specific set of values but can vary infinitely within a creative space.

Two interlinked phases of development …

In the UK, disability art has had two interlinked phases of development. The first started in the 1970s with the introduction of the disability rights movement.  Disabled artists’ focus was around questioning preconceived ideas of disability, and disabling barriers. During this period groups of arts-activists got together to form disability-led arts organisations, such as LDAF (London Disability Arts Forum) in 1986. LDAF’s Creative Director (1998-2006) and disability rights icon Julie McNamara describes disability arts at that time as “subversive and politically challenging”. McNamara refers to the satirically brilliant ‘Tragic But Brave Show’ as being a “seminal turning point for Disability Arts UK”. New, fresh and radical, this was the first time disabled artists questioned the dominant ableist narrative of being viewed as either tragic and/or brave.

 “There is often a relationship between minority art forms and social movements. This is suggested to be the case with disability art.” (Davis, 2006)

The second phase was around 2005 when disabled artists created performances and exhibitions for a mainstream audience – taking disability art out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, but on its own terms. Disabled artists began to produce work that is more subtle, less confrontational and more about the notion of disability aesthetics and the affirmation model of disability. In the world of theatre and television for instance, there are many more disabled actors producing work for a ‘mainstream’ audience, and/or getting parts that are full well rounded characters. Examples of these include Laurence Clarke, Jess Thom, Liz Carr and Francesca Martinez.

Artists such as Robert Softley Gale and Claire Cunningham have toured their work internationally, in both mainstream and disability-led environments. Cunningham is currently part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Auteur Development Programme.

Cunningham describes her work as “initially rooted in the use/misuse, study and distortion of crutches … which aims to challenge conventions around virtuosity, classical aesthetic and dance, but are also her means to relate and connect to the world as an artist.” 

Historical cultural references of disability … 

Even in a world where disabled artists are less ghettoised, artists continue to be influenced by historical cultural references of disability – both in terms of our social oppression and fascination with historic disabled artists.

Disabled singer songwriters Johnny Crescendo and Miss Dennis Queen continue to produce work that challenge disabling barriers and misrepresentations of disability in the media. They both have a huge following of younger arts-activists and tour internationally. The ‘freak show’ genre is still being used today in an ironic way. For example, actor Mat Fraser’s Seal Boy play and the Coney Island freak show in NYC, where Fraser has also performed. Artist Frida Kahlo is an excellent example of a historic figure, whose impairment (in part) informed her practice, and continues to influence disabled artists. In 2015 Caroline Bowditch co-created ‘Falling in Love with Frida’, an interactive performance exploring the life, love and legacy of Kahlo. Bowditch draws parallels between herself and the painter, both as women and as disabled artists.

Yet, as Solvang (2012) points out, “no native homeland of disability exists”.  In a world where identities are interlinked and complex, can we all use ‘disability’ – the idea that we are all non-standard – as a general lens of understanding the world? (Davis, 2006).  This certainly wouldn’t apply to deaf artists, such as Ramesh Meyyappann or Caroline Parker, who consider themselves to be a linguistic minority with a very distinct culture.

Many artists feel that Disability Art is, or should be, about celebrating a distinct identity and the affirmation of the disabled body. They reject both the notion that we are all non-standard, as well as disability art being based on our ‘social oppression’.

I have thought about these different approaches whilst making my most recent work; Hanging in the Balance. I continue to question whether the images created do raise awareness of the issues we face in times of austerity, and whether it is ok to focus on, or even embrace, our vulnerabilities. 

Outsider Art, Art Therapy and Disability Aesthetics … 

Terms interconnected with ‘Disability Art’ include: Outsider Art, Art Therapy and Disability Aesthetics.

Until the 1980s Outsider Art was associated with art brut (raw art), and used to describe any work of art produced by an untrained idiosyncratic artist. Often these artists were perceived to hold unconventional views of the world and were frequently diagnosed as mentally ill. Art Therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. Some disabled artists consider art therapy to be a rather condescending practice.

Paraorchestra Musician, Charlotte White recalls Music Therapy as, “somebody sitting in front of you banging a drum or playing a guitar, and you’re meant to tell them all your worries about life. It’s incredibly patronising and very boring.”

Disability Aesthetics on the other hand embraces physical and mental difference as a valued form of human variation. Although Disability Aesthetics may not be about disability as a form of social oppression, it does question aesthetic standards and tastes that exclude people with impairments, particularly within visual culture. Disability Aesthetics is associated with the second phase of disability arts, but visual artists like David Hevey have been producing work about valuing the disabled body since the 1990s. 

So, what is Disability Art?

As is evident from this piece it is a complex and ever shifting concept.

For me, both disability aesthetics and the fight against social oppression remain at the heart of disability art.  I feel that the erosion of our rights through current government policies, for example, needs to be represented and questioned within the disability art world. However there is also a place for the multitude of excellent work produced by disabled artists that does not focus on either of these ideas.

What is certain is that it has evolved and developed over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so. I for one look forward to being involved in its evolution.

Ian Stanton, Tragic But Brave Show
Ian Stanton, Tragic But Brave Show
Claire Cunningham
Claire Cunningham
Hanging in the Balance Selway & Nash, Wet Plate, 1 of 5
Hanging in the Balance
Selway & Nash, Wet Plate, 1 of 5

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