UK Disability History Month takes place from 22 Nov – 22 Dec. This year’s theme is Disability and Art, so I hosted Art Chat at Leeds Art Gallery on Friday 24th November, with a focus on disabled people and the Gallery.
The publicity for the event said:
Thinking about Leeds Art Gallery as a building and about the artworks within, we’ll discuss questions such as: Are disabled people represented in the gallery? Who are disabled artists? And is it important to know?
It went well, 14 people attended, a mix of disabled and non-disabled people, and we had a good discussion. Here’s a summary of some of the things we covered:
How do you represent disabled people in the gallery? How do you know who the disabled artists and subjects are, because in most cases it won’t be obvious?
Avoid becoming segregationist and reductive.
It’s in the interpretation, add appropriate information when and where opportunities arise – not necessarily on the fixed labels, but through talks, events, discussions.
We want to know more about the subjects and models. What are their stories?
Interpreting art is constantly evolving as new layers of understanding and information are added. Knowing about someone’s life, for example, whether they are disabled, is another layer of information that adds to the value and interest of the art.
Public galleries have collections built up over 100 years or more, that reflect the times, so representation of diversity can be challenging. The current hang in Leeds Art Gallery has paid particular attention to women artists.
Should disabled artists be” outed” (e.g. we learned that Zebedee Jones is deaf)? Strong feelings either way. Does it affect how we view the work?
While it may be an artist’s desire not to be labelled or known as disabled, for a number of reasons, disabled people also have a right to challenge that.
One woman with a hearing impairment, once she learned Jones was deaf, then had a very intense reaction to his work, Blue History: densely layered and scraped oil painting.
Ryan Gander’s approach versus Yinka Shonibare. Gander’s strategy is for zero attention to be paid to disability, whereas Shonibare talks openly about being disabled, although main focus of his work is on colonialism.
If an artist is disabled, it is bound to be reflected in their work somehow. Even if not dealing with disability issues.
Need positive role models. Especially for young disabled people: you can be an artist.
The trouble is, disability is seen as a negative – by the art world and disabled artists themselves, so we need to change the lens through which disability is viewed. Otherwise, stigma persists and feeds off itself.
We need to create conditions where disabled artists can be open about being disabled, without fear of stigma. One way to do this is to talk about it more.
The Art Gallery is planning to hold regular sessions (every 2 months or so) focusing on disability, and on the intersections with other issues, as part of Art Chat.