Melissa Mostyn reviews the work and examines the challenges faced by Deaf artists seeking to forge careers in the hearing world
Olivier Jamin, Sunny Chana, Iva Hay and Linda Bagnall, who are part of Wolverhampton's Deaf Cultural Centre, recently put on a show of their artwork in the Bilston Craft Gallery. Their remit was to explore communication through their artistic practice.
Inside an 1890s building three tram stops away from Wolverhampton, a stunning floor mosaic entices you to the first floor where Tools of Communication, an exhibition by four Deaf visual artists – Olivier Jamin, Sunny Chana, Iva Hay and Linda Bagnall – can be found. Small and quiet, and painted an unassuming off-white with airy windows, Bilston Craft Gallery is designed for members of the local community wishing to show off their craftwork to local audiences – thus becoming an ideal backdrop for the exhibition.
Here, adorning the walls are colourful Warhol-style silk screen-prints by Chana depicting The Dark Knight's The Joker, alongside two of Jamin's trademark glittery pen drawings; glazed clay sculptures of a hand shaped with even smaller hands and a crouching fairy by Bagnall; and small collaged acrylic knot paintings by Hay, symbolising communication getting in a twist. This is not a breakthrough. Deaf visual art has explored themes of communication for more than two decades, and there is nothing in this exhibition that hasn't been done before – by Deaf or hearing artists.
Not that Chana, Jamin et al – part of the Midlands-based Deaf Cultural Centre's Deaf Arts Network - shouldn't collaborate with local mainstream artists. Quite the contrary. But let's not harbour any illusions. These artists are firmly of the commercial/community art mould, and cannot expect to be promoting a 'different view' without first familiarising themselves with mainstream thinking. And this is where it gets difficult. The real challenges lie not in visiting art collections, collecting famous images, or even meeting mainstream artists, but in translating written contemporary art theory into BSL terms. The prevailing view - that art is what you make it - makes it even harder to pick creative gold from the flotsam, ensuring that artists endorsed by Saatchi or the Turner Prize, such as Stella Vine, continue to attract controversy.
Salon was formed in 2005 to address this issue. Unfortunately, while many of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing visual artists who came to us recognised their exclusion from the mainstream contemporary art scene, it was difficult to create an environment in which the full impact of a conceptual 2D or 3D piece, questioning the status quo from a Deaf perspective, could be realised. We may one day work out where we went wrong. In a fantastic programme recently, BBC TV's See Hear explored the capabilities of the Deaf brain, using a series of tests specially devised by the Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre. It concluded that born-Deaf people tend to differ in their visual and sensory perceptions and in their way of remembering, even though they use the same part of their brains to decipher BSL as hearing people do to decipher spoken English.
Here lies the crux of the issue. Contemporary art theory evolves from an entirely oral English standpoint, suggesting that Deaf visual artists may need to be bilingual in order to break new ground. One answer may lie in Edward Richards' Deaf Map, inspired by similar Deaf brain research undertaken by DCAL in partnership with Shape as part of their 2001 Deaf Eyes project. A witty subversion of the BSE principle, Deaf Map charted a rump-shaped 'region' that showed cities, towns, Deaf schools and universities where members of the Deaf community had 'spread'. Oddly enough – even though he was endorsing BSL/Deaf Culture – the irony displayed by Richards' piece actually came across as being very English, being dependent on wordplay of the kind that doesn't exist in BSL. Bilingualism like that can help bridge the cultural gulf between Deaf and hearing.
Provided of course that they found a way to cross the language divide, another means for the Deaf Arts Network to access mainstream perspectives might be to work with more hard-of-hearing visual artists. I recall an older hard-of-hearing sculptor at one Salon workshop. In minutes Heather Veevers made a 3D piece using a folded sheet of aluminium and three cut cables poking through at cross purposes, which she called Disconnected. The lucidity was extraordinary: one glance at it and your head would register its meaning immediately.
Just that one piece transcended the communication barrier and articulated it. Despite fresh memories of being hearing, Veevers had begun to dissociate herself from sound due to the pain it caused her ears – thus marking the spot at which Deaf and hearing begin to diverge. She could be just the tool of communication that the Deaf Arts Network needs to break away from its rather passive mould.
To find out more about the work of the Deaf Cultural Centre and the Deaf Arts Network, please go to www.deafculturalcentre.com