SawadaLast week I took part in the Awkward Bastards symposium around diversity, organised by DASH and held at mac in Birmingham. I was to speak, along with three other artists, about this question ‘why is it so difficult to define yourself as a disabled artist?’. It was a fantastic day, so much covered – see the latest DASH blog.

My presentation can be viewed here. And the script is as follows:

So this short presentation is from my own personal perspective, as someone working with contemporary arts and its audiences, making contemporary art accessible, in whatever form that takes. So my view is one from the outside looking in, and around.

And to prepare for this today took ages! I think because of the question itself. It speaks of many things – of visibility, of language, of power. I ended wondering if it was now in fact, the right question for 2015.

To define yourself as an artist is to take a position on the margins. And for many it is hard enough to call yourself an artist anyway. And this position is automatically taken or assumed as a white male position. That is why we have had to attach other labels of classification to the word artist over the years, be that:

Woman artist
Black artist
Disabled artist
The term Male (able-bodied, heterosexual) artist is not required – it is assumed.

Given my struggle with the question, I asked thirty of my friends and colleagues who work in the artworld what their knee jerk response was to the question

Why is it so difficult to define yourself as a Disabled artist?

Some of their replies:
Might it be because able-bodied people don’t define themselves as able-bodied, so why label oneself as disabled?
It flags up difference, not acceptance? (producer)

Increasingly, disabled artists do not want to/feel the need to define themselves as ‘disabled’ in the same way that in recent debates black writers have made it clear that they don’t want the label ‘black’ just ‘writer’. Why should you have to wear your disability on your sleeve in this way? The only time when it’s relevant is when seeking funding or showing work as part of a specific disability event or festival. (artist)

It’s not about disability, but more about bloody good art.. (curator)

I resist labelling myself any more than an artist (not visual artist, painter, sculptor etc) – it feels as though it might be limiting, and make me more mindful of people’s preconceptions about what any of those roles are or what they might mean. (artist)

So this is also the challenge, the difficulty and the freedom about what kind of artist you are, keeping that fluid and unfixed – to work within a range of different media.

A ‘collapsed field’ of art practice, where the boundaries are more fluid than they have ever been – a collapse of mediums, where ceramics and photography occupy spaces between painting, installation and performance. And you, the artist, can call it what you wish.

And over the last ten years, there isn’t a handy ‘ism’ so we can understand what’s going on, but we can see trends towards the following within contemporary art:

  • A return to making – to the hand, to the touch
  • A desire to collaborate – lots of artist working with different people, architects, writers, film-makers, other artists
  • Personalised accounts of art – an investigation of identity and the self
  • A turn towards the body, the sensual – and towards the experiential

Does this signify more space for difference? For diversity?

I think another important trend is that artists have more opportunities than ever to work in a range of different contexts, be that a museum, National Trust property or site.

This is an example of Aaron Williamson curating – and performing – at the Hunterian Museum based at the Royal College of Surgeons in 2011. He was commissioned by Shape and The Arts Catalyst to respond to the museum’s permanent collection.

The audience were invited to explore the displays – the Hunterian being a medical history museum with some fascinating specimens – while encountering four simultaneous site-specific performances by Aaron Williamson, Katherine Arianello, Brian Catling and Sinead O’Donnell:

Aaron frames himself as – an artist who is informed by his disability – and that he enjoys being deaf – for him, it’s about gaining deafness, not losing hearing. Its about what you gain, not what you lose. Here, he positions himself as object, through the glass, a specimen to be observed.

And this is Katherine Araniello – responding to the situation by literally becoming a guinea pig. She resists being defined by impairment, by a medical model. That she never states what she actually is, doesn’t name her disability, refusing to be pigeon-holed.

It is a familiar scenario of wishing to be acknowledged for your work, not for your disability.
But at the same time, many artists need or want their identity to be acknowledged ie the work exists because you are disabled.

I want to believe that we are working now in a place where self-definition is commonplace, and available. That art practice is acknowledged because it is driven by difference. And that this is celebrated because it’s so bloody interesting. Work like this:

The fibre art of Judith Scott – a great example of someone being ‘discovered’ , acknowledged and labeled as an outsider artist – an artist who has had no formal training. She created over 200 works in 18 years, some of them 9 ft long, and are made by wrapping yarn or wool around objects and found materials. Her work is currently on show at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, with a curator saying:
Matthew Higgs, Director, White Columns    

The fetish like ceramic figures of Japanese artist Shinichi Sawada – diagnosed as autistic, he lives in an institute for the mentally disabled and makes these works in a small cabin in the woods there. They were shown at the last Venice Biennale in 2013.

The beautiful and compelling stills from Sue Austin’s freewheeling art practice – creating the spectacle! In her underwater wheelchair her body is completely supported and has motors that give a wide range of movement, enabling her to perform acrobatic manoeuvres, which many people have likened to an underwater ballet. 150 million people worldwide have seen this image.

Finally, I see also the potential for change within the institution through curated projects like Aaron’s. That different interpretive labels might be written, with different displays. Through dialogue and interaction can come a shared understanding between disciplines and such compelling diverse artistic activity.



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