Looking – and going – backwards?

I enjoyed re-connecting with, thinking about and being challenged by disability art this month. Hosting a discussion on the subject was just the start.

Creatures Time ForgotPhotographer and film-maker David Hevey was speaking in Leeds on 7th Dec. Hevey was largely responsible for radically re-framing images of disabled people and for challenging representation of disabled people in mainstream media from the 1980’s onwards. His work had a huge influence and was an essential element in the disabled people’s movement. This isn’t just a question of aesthetics but is about how disabled people are viewed and therefore treated.

I reckon Hevey can claim much of the credit for the demise of the crushingly negative images of disabled people that charities used before and throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and into the 90’s. Not to say that this is the only problem with charities, nor that the typically scaremongering or tear-jerking images are extinct.   At one time, though, those images were often the only representations of disabled people that anyone ever saw. Not only did this affect non-disabled people, but disabled people took on these ideas that disabled lives were tragic, hopeless and pathetic.

“If we hadn’t challenged representation, we wouldn’t have got rights (the Disability Discrimination Act) – in my view”, said Hevey at the Leeds event.

Hevey went on to make a number of ground-breaking documentaries, including for the BBC where he made the series The Disabled Century. What was particularly striking about that series (and what angered charities, the medical profession and government) was that it told disabled people’s history throughout the 20th century only from the point of view of disabled people.

Hevey states that radical media has a huge audience; if you stick to truth and evidence, there will be an audience for your work. Being cautious is fatal.
“Why aren’t they commissioning DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) and Not Dead Yet? These are where the stories are happening!”

Hevey is now Project Director of the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive. By its very nature an archive must look back to the past, “a golden period when disabled people forced the cultural agenda”, compared to grim Britain that disabled people are now facing, according to a piece on the NDACA website.  But I hope the archive will also look to the future and emerging artists who are making new forms of disability art – whether or not they call it that.

Great Britain from a Wheelchair, by Tony Heaton
Great Britain from a Wheelchair, by Tony Heaton

A couple of days after David Hevey’s talk I visited an exhibition at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. Art Life Activism put the politics very firmly into disability art, even going as far as to include banners from the National League of the Blind & Disabled and DPAC in the exhibition. Bold statements introduced each gallery, accurately describing this as an exhibition that “brings together a diverse range of critically acclaimed artists who make artwork informed by the politics of disability”. Liz Crow, Tony Heaton, David Hevey, Bobby Baker, Adam Reynolds. This was a greatest hits of disability art over the decades.

There were monumental pieces, and some real classics, work that I know and love. That has influenced and encouraged me. And the more recent work sat well alongside these pieces. Aaron Williamson’s curation of work from the estate of Jim Chosen was particularly enjoyable.

I’d have liked to have visited the exhibition with someone who wasn’t familiar with the work on show, to see what they thought. I came away dissatisfied when I was expecting to be heartened. Perhaps that’s OK and a sign of the different times we’re in. I returned to the questions that are running round my head: is disability art – as a description, an idea, a movement – as relevant now as it was at the end of the last century? How do artists and audiences relate to it now?

Disabled people fought and continue to fight for equality and equal access to all aspects of the arts – to training and education, careers in the arts, opportunities to show and sell work and to experience and enjoy art. While this fight may have shifted away from the disability arts community towards the mainstream, have things got much better? Are we moving (slowly) forwards in the right direction – or have things gone backwards?

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