Exhibition proves disabled artists ‘still mine a rich seam of oppression’


A new disability arts exhibition is a “colourful reminder” of the battles disabled people have fought – and continue to fight – for their rights, say activists.

The exhibition is being held to launch a new gallery space for contemporary art at Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre.

The Art, Life, Activism exhibition features work by nine critically-acclaimed disabled artists whose work has been informed by the politics of disability: Simon Raven, Tony Heaton, Bobby Baker, Aaron Williamson, Noemi Lakmaier, Liz Crow, Adam Reynolds, Ann Whitehurst and David Hevey.

It includes Raven’s video installation The Tip on the Iceberg, which lists the names and brief details of people who are believed to have died as a result of the government’s welfare reforms, and is based on a list created by the grassroots campaign group Black Triangle.

A preview of the exhibition took place on the same day that government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit using the discredited work capability assessment (WCA) was linked with nearly 600 suicides in just three years.

Among the most striking works on show are two collections by Aaron Williamson (pictured), both of which satirise modern attitudes to disabled people.

In one of them, a series of pieces, supposedly from the archive of a now-deceased situationist artist and disabled activist called Jim Chosen, include images of the Subversive Claimants (UK) Movement (SCUM), which satirises the perception that disabled people are “scroungers”, as does a photograph featuring the graffiti slogan “Who Will Feed the Useless Eaters?”

The exhibition aims to chart the disabled people’s movement in Britain from the founding of the British Deaf Association in 1886, through to other significant events such as the formation of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) in 1974, the 1992 Block Telethon protest, and the October 2010 protest that led to the formation of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

Other exhibits include photographs of some of the many disabled people’s anti-cuts protests from the last five years, including the “balls to the budget” protest on 8 July 2015, the Atos Games week of action in August 2012, and the vigil held by the Mental Health Resistance Network and DPAC in January 2013 as a court heard a case that would eventually end with the conclusion that the WCA discriminated against many disabled people.

Debbie Jolly, a co-founder of DPAC, who was a guest at the launch, said: “The exhibition is a colourful reminder of the many battles disabled people must fight, illuminated through critique, art, politics and activism.

“The fact that the launch was on the same day as research linking increased suicides and increasing rates of mental health issues to the heinous work capability assessment was a poignant reminder that our battles have escalated to a level that commands additional activism as well as the international recognition from UN bodies on the blatant abuse of our human rights.”

The exhibition also features prints of drawings by Bobby Baker, influential sculptures by Tony Heaton, including Great Britain from a Wheelchair and Gold Lamé, a DPAC Rights Not Charity banner, and Liz Crow’s Reflections from the Bed, based on recordings and time-lapse photography from her anti-welfare cuts performance piece Bedding Out.

Heaton, who helped develop the exhibition, said that although many of the pieces could easily have been created in 2015 – because of the widespread discrimination still faced by disabled people – this did not mean the disability arts movement had failed to change society.

He said: “I don’t think you can judge it in success or failure. What is successful is we are still mining a rich seam of discrimination and oppression.”

Another guest, Tracey Proudlock, a co-founder of the influential Campaign for Accessible Transport – which featured in photographs in one of the three galleries – said: “There are some incredibly sharp, good messages here but they are not being seen by enough disabled people.

“I know if disabled people saw some of the things here they would be more politicised.

“If they could see some of the disabled artists, they would see how relevant it is and see how they could contribute themselves.”

The centre’s patron, Michael Attenborough, the theatre director and son of the late film director, actor and producer Lord [Richard] Attenborough, told the launch event that the “meaning and function” of the building, which was opened 18 years ago, were “absolutely in concert” with his father’s views.

The building was opened in 1997 by Princess Diana as The Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, following a campaign led by his father.

Attenborough told guests that his father had said, at its opening, how “for far too long we have excluded disabled people from every form of artistic expression”, and how the project had been an “irresistible” opportunity to “make higher education and the arts fully accessible to people with disabilities, with their needs for once at the very forefront of design”.

He also repeated part of his father’s maiden speech in the House of Lords in November 1994, in which he told fellow peers: “The arts are not a luxury… Access to them should not be restricted to a privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone, and failure to include everyone diminishes us all.”

The exhibition runs until 17 January 2016, with free entry

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