Political banners, with their traditions reaching back through the labour movement, have something in common with the Shoddy exhibition. Being fabric-based is the obvious connection, with a skillful use of embroidery, appliqué and painting to convey a strong message. Banners often carry a message of protest or resistance, but are as often about identity, pride, unity and justice.
We are familiar with trade union banners, the banners of the women’s suffrage movement and, of course, banners that are carried on demonstrations – sometimes quickly and roughly made, but with something to say and aiming to grab your attention.
The disabled people’s movement has created some wonderful, attention-grabbing banners over the years, including the legendary banner that accompanied DAN, the disabled people’s direct action network, on actions during the 1990s. The slogan “to boldly go where everyone else has gone before” was the backdrop for DAN’s campaign for accessible public transport when activists boldly handcuffed themselves to buses and trains and stopped traffic for hours.
Banners have carried the messages of the disabled people’s movement since it began. “Not Charity But Social Justice” and “Justice Not Charity” appeared on banners carried by the National League of the Blind in 1920, demanding legislation to protect their rights and guarantee a minimum income for blind workers.
This slogan echoes down the years. It’s one of the foundations of the disabled people’s movement. DAN was formed after the Block Telethon demos demanded “Rights Not Charity”. DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) makes the same demand today, evidenced in their banner in last year’s Art, Life, Activism exhibition at the Attenborough Centre, Leicester, showing art informed by the politics of disability.
In the same exhibition, there was a later example of a banner from the National League of the Blind & Disabled, as the organisation later became.
Not strictly a banner, the quilt made by supporters of the campaign seeking Justice for LB (“Laughing Boy”) or Connor Sparrowhawk needs mentioning. Connor died in 2013, aged 18, while a temporary patient in a specialist NHS treatment and assessment unit for people with learning disabilities in Oxford. He drowned in a bath following an epileptic seizure. An independent inquiry found that his death had been ‘preventable’ and the inquest in October 2015 concluded that neglect was a contributory factor in his death. The campaign seeks both justice and changes in the hospital system to prevent this happening again.
Disbanners was a project organised by Full Circle Arts in Manchester last year. It gave disabled people a voice through creating protest banners with renowned marching banner artist Ed Hall. Shoddy artist Gemma Nash took part and blogged about the project.
In 2015, to celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta, Parliament commissioned nine artists, three of whom are disabled, to produce banners for Westminster Hall. Jason Wilsher-Mills created banners inspired by the 1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs and the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Rachel Gadsden took the 1601 Poor Law and the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act as her inspirations. Paula Stevens-Hoare marked The Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended the right to vote, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality, with her banners.
The banners have now been gifted to different venues round the country.
The final example of a powerful and moving banner that’s both protest and remembrance is the one created by Gill Thompson and Maggie Zolobajluk listing the names of people who have died due to benefit cuts and sanctions. Gill’s brother was David Clapson, an ex-soldier who died penniless and hungry following benefit sanctions (see short video). The banner was taken to the Dept for Work & Pensions headquarters earlier this year, along with a petition signed by 31,000, demanding changes to the sanctions policy. So far none have been made and the DWP continues to abdicate all responsibility for David and others’ deaths.
The anti-sanctions campaign and banner will be visiting Leeds later in the year. Keep updated on the Facebook page.
Shoddy artist Lesley Illingworth’s Story Telling Coat likewise remembers those who have died due to benefit cuts, pairing names of the deceased with MPs and warning that this is the ultimate price demanded from disabled people who are unable to comply with punishing work regimes.