The award ceremony for Shape Open exhibition at Portobello Gallery last night was a crowded affair. Colin Hambrook went along to soak up Shape’s outing into a mainstream gallery space in West London.
There were substantial prizes of £500 and £250 for the Award winners, so it was not surprising that the quality of the work submitted was very high. And the winning prize was given to two entrants, so all credit to Shape for coming up with an extra fee. The exhibition contained an enjoyable mix of painting, photography, sculpture and artists’ film, which provided some very thoughtful and thought-provoking chat amongst those in attendance.
A first prize went to Ilsun Maeng, whose ‘Blurred Portrait’ was used as the publicity image for the exhibition. Highly crafted, the photograph is intriguing as a comment on the mutability of gender. It is also a representation of how the artist sees and as such, is part of a tradition of painting, photography and film made by visually impaired artists - going back to Monet.
The other first prize went to Lauren Nicholas for her affectionate and telling animation about the world as seen from her grandfather's point of view: ‘An Ageing Thing’. Mixing animation with real-time footage, this short film is clearly a labour of love. It contains a dramatic tearing away of the elderly gent's right eye, giving a powerful visual image of his emotional response to becoming visually impaired.
But to my way of thinking, both these works are as much if not more about ‘impairment‘ – albeit as something “to be expected and respected on its own terms, rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility.” (Colin Cameron in interview on DAO). When I see works like these, poster campaigns for “seeing the person, not the ‘disability’” come flashing in front of my eyes.
The People’s Choice was called ‘Anonymous Cheol-Su, North, 2010’ by Luna Jung-eun Lee. In terms of technique, the painting is beautifully executed, employing an exacting drip technique to create a portrait of a young face. The painting gives an impression of someone struggling for identity, perhaps, or for recognition.
In terms of ‘disability’ the message is ambiguous, which is maybe how it should be, although I would have liked there to have been some kind of written documentation that put the work in context. In fact, a big missing factor for the exhibition as a whole, was the omission of context… and to my mind context is everything! It was lack of context that allowed the American Government in the 1950s to use Abstract Expressionism in a campaign to "culturally" fight communism – to the disgust of many of the artists themselves.
In terms of Disability Arts, context has perhaps never been so important. As disabled people, we struggle for recognition of the power relations that exist in respect of our inclusion in society.
The tabloid press in particular has been in the throes of a major campaign to discredit the majority of disabled people for some time now. We are looking at all the hard won rights that the last generation of disabled people fought for, rapidly falling by the way side. There has been a spate of demonizing the Social Model and I would have thought that now, more than ever, was a time for supporting it.
I just didn’t believe that as Ben Fredericks stated in his interview on DAO that the brief for the Shape Open would “generate new ideas… to survey what 'disability' means to contemporary artists.”
I would be interested to know if Shape think the exhibition did this and how artists and audience commented on the process?
As an adendum I thought it might be helpful to add the following defintions of 'impairment' and 'disability'.
World Health Organisation’s 1981 International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH) define impairment in terms of inferiority
Impairment: any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function
Disability: any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being (WHO, 1981)
Affirmative Model definition:
Impairment: physical, sensory and intellectual difference to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society.
Disability: the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in community life on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers.