10 May 2007
Joe McConnell reviews Face On, a new disability arts reader, published by Arts and Disability Ireland
Face On is an anthology which is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. Pádraig Naughton, one of the instigators of the project, tells us that one of its editorial aims was to 'encourage contributors to frame new debates which can now move out beyond these pages.' This book succeeds with flying colours.
Reflections on many essential aspects of disability arts are provided by both Irish and British disabled writers and artists. These are interspersed with creative writing and reproductions of visual art.
The book works well on many levels, the two most important being an explanation of what people currently understand in the term 'disability arts' and also an exploration of why Ireland - North and South - has not developed a disability arts movement comparable to the one in the UK.
One of the many strengths of this anthology is the way in which the editors have given individual contributors freedom to define key terms such as disability arts, social model, etc in their own individual contexts. This removes the bullying demagogy that hangs over some of the writing in this domain.
An illuminating contribution from Allan Sutherland explains how disability arts in Britain went hand-in-hand with the disabled people's movement. Against this, Michael Morgan explains that: 'A disability movement in the sense of a self-organised body ... of disabled people acting together in a bottom-up, radicalised sense is still largely missing.' Both Morgan and other contributors explore the way in which the charity/consensus model has dominated in the Republic and how, in the North, the sectarian divide has eclipsed the identity-based politics which gave birth to the movement in the UK. It is great to see Morgan marking the decline of church influence - a great purveyor of the charity model - in the Republic. This is not often acknowledged by mainstream commentators who, when it comes to Ireland, often seem eager to perpetuate received ideas based on a past reality which has, in fact, moved on. Steve Daunt crystallises the lay of the land in the Republic where 'the term "disabled people" came to include parents and carers, while the idea of stakeholders threw service providers into the mix.
Although it is clear that the UK has a more vibrant rights-based movement, several contributors agree that it is not a given that Ireland's fledgling movement should reinvent itself in the image and likeness of the British picture. Editor Kaite O'Reilly boldly sets the tone for this in stating that both Ireland and the UK have a lot to learn from each other. Much has been written in the past of Ireland's traditionalism and conservatism. But it is a country undergoing rapid dynamic change and - as acknowledged by Donal Toolan - there are many other ethnic groups now being absorbed into the national identity. So old certainties and old chestnuts get swiftly booted out. Face On acknowledges this to its credit.
Breath of fresh air
The reader/anthology has a freshness and vibrant immediacy which O'Reilly facilitates through the channelling of many voices without ever letting any one voice dominate. I love the way Irish artists Thomas Connole and Lois Davies respond to the contribution of Maggie Hampton from Arts Disability Wales. The work also transcends the way in which Ireland automatically gets lumped together with all the other Celtic countries as if it were still a province of the UK. Instead, it was great to see the contributions being selected on a thematic basis, such as Phillip Patston's entertaining piece about disability arts and drag.
However, it would have been good to see more critical feedback from UK contributors on the state of play of Disability Arts in 2007 and beyond. So much has changed recently with many practitioners and critics referring to the desexing of the movement by the funding machine and also how much 'art exploring disability' is still experiencing Groundhog Day. Not all is grey, but changes are happening which are not really brought out in Face On. Well, there's always the second edition, which would be so richly deserved, and could perhaps contain more generous helpings of creative writing and visual art . The only other very small whinge is that occasionally contributors replace reflection on their own experience with self-congratulation and a bit too much promotion of their own projects. Maybe they're suffering the effect of writing too many funding applications?
Besides providing highly useful insights into Disability Arts and culture in the 'two Irelands', Face On is a must-read for all those out there who still don't get it about Disability Arts in general, or those who insist on corralling it into a separatist ghetto. And the various contributions powerfully confirm Kaite O'Reilly's assertion that Disability Arts is 'an enrichment of all arts, as exciting and challenging work that can open up boundaries ...'
Face On, Disability Arts in Ireland and Beyond, published by Arts and Disability Ireland in partnership with Create, Dublin 2007.
Sadly one of the main Face On contributors, Michael Morgan (1956-2007) died suddenly on 27th April. The following is an extract from Issue 373 (May 2007) of Etcetera (published by the National Disability Arts Forum):
"Michael Morgan was Chair of the Arts & Disability Forum during its formative years and more recently was Chair of Open Arts. He wrote many papers and articles on arts and disability and Disability Arts, including a recent essay in Face On; Disability Arts in Ireland and Beyond (Arts and Disability Ireland, 2007). His influence extends through arts & disability organisations throughout Northern Ireland.
The Arts and Disability Forum is inviting short contributions for its next newsletter, which will pay tribute to the memory of Michael Morgan and the contribution he has made to arts and disability in Northern Ireland. Please forward your memories of Michael by email: firstname.lastname@example.org