Disabled artists have expressed disappointment at the mayor of London’s scaled-back plans for the capital’s annual disability arts festival, which has continued to shrink in size since its heyday in the mid-2000s.
Liberty was originally launched by Ken Livingstone in 2003 as a festival celebrating both disability arts and disability rights.
The first eight Liberty festivals were held in Trafalgar Square before the venue was moved to the South Bank in 2011.
Liberty was then merged with National Paralympic Day – a decision that itself was widely criticised by disabled artists – and the location moved to the Olympic Park in east London.
Last year, the festival was renamed Liberty Unbound and was held for the first time across three London boroughs – Enfield, Hounslow and Lewisham – in late August and early September.
This year’s Liberty will be held in late autumn – 23 and 24 November – in venues across the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest, which mayor Sadiq Khan has named as his first London borough of culture.
There is a line-up of critically-acclaimed disabled artists, including Nwando Ebizie (pictured), Jess Thom’s Touretteshero and Byron Vincent, and a Deaf Rave club night, with performances, installations and screenings of the documentary The Unlimited House of Krip, but there are concerns that the festival has lost its original scale and commitment to disability rights.
Dr Ju Gosling, artistic director of Together! 2012*, who has contributed to many Liberty festivals over the years, said the new format “seems focussed on showcasing disabled artists to non-disabled people, with disabled people having to criss-cross Walthamstow for 36 hours if they want to access all of the activities, which clearly creates significant barriers”.
She said: “All of the acts are great, of course, and I would welcome any and all of them to Newham, where we continue to have one of the lowest cultural engagement rates in the UK.”
But she added: “I still believe there is a huge need for a summer-based outdoor festival – late November hardly being ideal for disabled people to access outdoor installations, etc – which brings disabled people together on one site to enjoy our own cultural activities, as promised by article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“Most of us don’t live in fully accessible homes, so we only see our friends at events like Liberty – there are quite a number of people whom I haven’t seen since 2017 when the last single-site festival took place.
“Liberty began as ‘The Mayor of London’s Disability Rights Festival’, but all of the elements which supported our rights, from information stalls to gaining resilience through social networking, have seemingly been abandoned.”
David Hevey, chief executive of London-based Shape Arts, said: “I hope Liberty returns to the scale it used to have.
“Let’s hope this is the beginning of it going back to a large scale.
“It’s great that it’s keeping going. It’s got a great legacy. I just hope that it achieves a more national pre-eminence again.”
Kevin Walsh, executive director of Graeae Theatre Company, said: “Liberty Festival is one of the cornerstones of the modern disability arts landscape and it is great that it returns for another year.
“We have been supportive of the programme reaching parts of London outside the centre, as it is taking the festival to boroughs that would benefit from a bit more Touretteshero and Candoco [Dance Company] in their lives.
“That said, something has been lost by not having a celebration in the centre of London.
“It was with great pride that we belted out tunes and danced across Trafalgar Square to the random passers-by who just came to frolic in the fountains.
“There is something brazen and sexy about introducing tourists to 40 years of progress in disability arts.
“Front and centre, loud, proud and chaotic, Liberty Festival was always a little bit of naughtiness on a summer’s day.
“We’ll be there in Walthamstow, though, the line-up sounds awesome and we love what [access to live music charity] Attitude is Everything are doing to support Waltham Forest venues.”
A spokesperson for the mayor of London said: “This year’s Liberty festival will take place across an entire weekend, showcasing deaf and disabled artists and performers.
“By partnering with Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture we are holding a range of events across a variety of locations so there are more opportunities for Londoners to enjoy the works.
“We are working closely with Waltham Forest to ensure that all sites are accessible to the widest possible audience.”
He said the London Borough of Culture programme was “designed to bring arts and culture to the doorsteps of Londoners” and that Liberty would be “family-focused to help break barriers and educate children”, including panel talks, workshops, emerging artist commissions, local artist performances, and performance pieces.
He added: “While some events take place outside, there will also be indoor events as part of the festival.”
*Together! 2012’s Disability History Month Festival begins on 22 November in Stratford, east London
Picture by Anya Arnold
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