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Disability Arts Online

photo of a black man wearing 18th century european clothes in an african print design

Yinka Shonibare MBE ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Asia)' (2008) type C-print © the artist

Building a total picture of the arts – removing the blinkers

The arts world and the institutions that are there to support it need to encourage and resource new attempts through inventive means to resituate diverse artists, both historically and theoretically, at the centre of British art. The task is not to distort or add more falsifications to the burden of history, but to build a total picture of what has gone before – to acknowledge, learn from and build upon all those artists whose contribution has been up to now ignored or downplayed.

This ‘total’ approach also allows us to re-look at artists whom we consider important and uncover aspects of their lives that the establishment template cannot hold – for example the role of disability in art. If we can open up these commonly neglected areas of inquiry, there is the chance that a proper place can be given to those artists today who are fighting against their work being devalued or being exoticised, and for its true potential to be recognised.

Colin Hambrook, editor of the resource rich Disability Arts Online argues that discriminatory attitudes towards disabled artists run deep in Western culture, citing the ‘virtue’ of the body beautiful elevated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and replicated by the Renaissance: "There is a key issue we still face – if an artist has an impairment and they are open about it, they will be discriminated against, their work won’t be valued or seen in the same light as their peers. There can then be an internal suppression – a pushing away of the importance of that aspect of themselves. Historically, disability was much more institutionalised and entrenched. We can see two thousand years of western culture where there has been the ideology of the perfect human with a perfect body and a perfect mind."

This is not to go back into history and tag famous artists as ‘disabled’, or even to necessarily claim that individuals past or present have been oppressed or faced discrimination because of disablism. Many artists have been impaired. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Frida Kahlo are two examples well-known to the public. However, it is important to understand how their disabilities may have entered their artistic processes.

In contemporary times the Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare has explained how the nature of his disability interacted with his artistic development. A 2001 profile of his work revealed that:

"Shonibare’s developing intellectual critique was informed by his own experience of physical disability. At the age of nineteen, while doing a foundation course at the Wimbledon School of Art, he contracted a viral infection that left him completely paralyzed for a month and in a wheelchair for three years. Although able to get about, he has impaired mobility, including limited use of his left side."

"This, he insists, made him both more determined and more creative as an artist: ‘Historically the people who made huge, unbroken modernist paintings, were middle-class white American men. I don’t have that physique; I can’t make that work. So I fragmented it, in a way which made it both physically manageable and emphasizes the political critique’." (From Nancy Hynes, ‘Yinka Shonibare: Re-dressing History’, and John Picton, Yinka Shonibare: Undressing Ethnicity’, African Arts, vol 34, no 3, autumn, 2001, pp 60–73, pp 93–95)

Race, disability and sex discrimination have particular manifestations in the twenty-first century that demand specific strategies and measures to overcome each of them. One thing anti-discrimination measures have in common however is the tendency to equalise relations between everyone. Freedom is indivisible. The same applies in the sphere of the arts.

Theorists argue that innovative approaches generated by disability arts studies generalise outwards to the benefit of us all. So US academic Terry Rowden argues ‘disability has a special force as means of rewriting normalizing narratives because it occurs across all social groups and catagories’.17

Colin Hambrook is also adamant that some of the innovations pioneered by the disability arts movement reveal new approaches, in ways which by and large we have yet to appreciate. One would be the way in which galleries, seeking to meet the needs of blind people, allow visitors to use senses other that their visual capacity, such as touch, as a means of revealing the nature of works of art on display.

A historical example would be the innovation pioneered by the sign language poet and playwright Dot Miles. She argued for a total appreciation of the aesthetics of her work. “The English language (albeit with a slight Welsh accent) was my mother-tongue. My poems are written from the words and music that still sing in my mind. Of recent years, I have tried to blend words with sign-language as closely as lyrics and tunes are blended in song. In such poems, the signs I chose are a vital part of the total effect and to understand my intention the poem should be seen as well as read”.(From Dorothy Miles, Bright Memory)