One of the final sessions I attended for the Festival of Unpopular Cultures was Not Just Talk: Disability, Art, Identity and the Mainstream. Moderated by performer and advocate Kyra Kimpton it also featured poet and advocate Ad’m Martin, designer and Disability Art Transaction Team representative Gaelle Mellis, from Richard Llewellyn Art and Disability Trust, visual artist Lara Torr, visual artist Kirsty Martinsen and choreographer Jo Dunbar.
All of these artists, bar Lara identified as a disability artist. A term I soon began to feel was quite loaded as they all agreed “we are all artists regardless of our disability”. However I began to wonder, when you put the word disability before artist are you defining yourself by your physicality rather than your creativity?
Jo argued that when you are identifying as a disabled artist, it means you have to work harder to move beyond the barriers. Leading her to question are you seeing the art or are you seeing the disability?
While saying ‘artist with a disability’ means you are putting art in the forefront Gaelle believes language is not the impairment it is society that still discriminates against disability. For her disability are the barriers society puts in place and rather than constantly adapting to it we need to tackle the discrimination that is out there.
Accessibility for artists with a disability is more than aesthetics it is also about mainstream culture accepting them as equal to their peers. The fact that actors are still being employed to play disabled people is offensive, especially when casting agents do not even audition disabled actors. As Ad’m put it; “nothing about us without us.”
Herein lies the other dilemma for these professional artists. When their work is not accepted in the mainstream it falls in to ‘community arts’. While I have seen first hand how therapeutic art can be for those with a mental illness I agree with Kirsty when she says, “everybody who attends an art class is identifying as an artist.”
The inability to distinguish between the artwork of a professional artist with a disability and art as therapy is also hindering the critical thinking that goes with it. Something all art forms must have in order to reach any standards of excellence.
As an assessor Lara believes the word artist has been handed over too easily and she has seen first hand the challenge to indentify the professional artists. However the ‘softly softly’ approach that is taken when looking at this artwork is also creating more hurdles and breaking that down is challenging.
By not assessing work on the artist’s merit we are negating the complexity of the work that is being created. Gaelle can see new art forms being explored by disability artists all the time that we are not discussing. Perhaps that’s because we are not seeing what the artist brings to the work and still seeing the disability.