I was asked to write something for a publication accompanying a project called Figure-Process-Material, part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle outreach and engagement programme. This project involved a number of community groups in an educational programme that also aimed to connect people to local galleries and break down some barriers along the way.
Because I wasn’t involved in the project, I couldn’t respond directly to the project or the work being made. In fact, I almost didn’t write anything. What follows is a response to a conversation I’d had with Paul Digby, the project’s lead artist, and returns to a theme that Shoddy has been circling around, disability art.
Community arts projects which give disabled people the chance to try out new art forms, learn new techniques, and produce work for others to see have a valued role in the arts. The way they address issues of disability, however, is often limited.
Community arts can introduce people to new experiences and ideas. Some people become artists as a result. At the very least, participants have fun and enjoy themselves.
I worked for a while as a community artist, mainly through a local arts organisation. At the same time, the mid 1980s, I was trying to find a local disabled people’s organisation to join. Rather than any like-minded campaigners, I came across only committees and fund-raisers. The manager of the local arts organisation introduced me to In-Valid?, a disability arts organisation in Bradford. I soon got involved: the organisation was run by a majority of disabled people, employed only disabled staff and artists, and organised projects for disabled people. Importantly, this organisation introduced me to the social model of disability and the disabled people’s movement.
The social model of disability says that disability is caused by barriers in society, discrimination and lack of opportunities, rather than by individuals’ impairments or medical conditions. This way of thinking about disability was developed by disabled people to explain their experiences, and to show what needs to change (more on the social model at http://gmcdp.com/social-model).
This made perfect sense: disability isn’t located within individuals, but is something that society does to people with impairments. It was incredibly powerful to understand that the reason why I’d been turned down for a number of jobs, for example, wasn’t because there was something “wrong” with me, but because of people’s prejudices and an unwillingness to make changes to the workplace.
Many other disabled people felt similarly empowered and liberated. And, like other liberation movements, it was important that disabled people were leading the demand for change. Disability arts was an important part of this movement. Broadly defined as art created by disabled artists, reflecting their experiences as disabled people, disability arts gave expression to disabled people’s strength and pride as well as challenging injustice and oppression.
These twin movements, the disabled people’s movement and the disability arts movement, were incredibly important to me and my identity as a disabled person, although during the 1990s I became more of an activist than artist.
Since that time, the number of community arts organisations and projects in Leeds has grown. They do some wonderful work, supporting creativity and opening up new worlds to disabled people and others whose access to arts and culture is restricted.
These projects, however, are often set up for disabled people by non-disabled people. They don’t seek to reflect disabled people’s experiences in the same way as disability arts does. I wanted to see work in Leeds by disabled artists that wasn’t filtered through a community arts organisation, and that challenged negative perceptions of disabled artists.
I returned to disability arts as a form of activism a couple of years ago. An exhibition by disabled artists, planned to run alongside a showing of Grayson Perry’s tapestries which was taking place in a Leeds venue that wasn’t accessible to many disabled people, seemed a more apt and effective way of protesting than a demo or a social media campaign. With support from many people and organisations and a great response from artists, I pulled “The Reality of Small Differences” together. The exhibition became a significant event in its own right. It showed there was an interest in Leeds in the work of disabled artists who, it seemed to me, were largely invisible.
My next project was an exhibition by disabled artists called “Shoddy”, which was shown in Leeds in April this year. It was a success, with lots of people praising the quality of the work.
Shoddy is the name for new cloth created from woollen waste and recycled fabric. This original meaning is now largely unknown, and the word has come to mean of inferior quality, shabby, broken-down. With the exhibition, I and the disabled artists who took part challenged any assumptions that our work, and our-selves, are inferior, broken-down, second-rate or badly made. This was framed against the current background of cuts to welfare benefits, and cuts to public services, including social care services, that are disproportionately affecting disabled people. “Shoddy” should perhaps be used to describe the government’s treatment of disabled people.
This strong, political message led me to describe Shoddy as a disability arts project. But notions of disability art and the place of disabled artists has moved on since the 1990s. Artists may have had different motivations for taking part in Shoddy. Many disabled artists react strongly against the idea of being labelled and think that disability art or being described as disabled artists is restrictive and unhelpful. Others, however, see this as empowering, supportive and important for visibility and diversity.
Disability art, identity, creativity, access, protest, inclusion – the issues are interlinked. Community arts and disability arts projects often have common aims: to make disabled artists’ work more visible and to enable disabled people to participate in and enjoy the arts without barriers. Where they differ, though, is in the degree that disabled people are involved and in control, and in the importance given to this.