A new exhibition is charting how artists have fought back against attacks on disabled people’s rights and financial support over the last six years.
Shape Arts’ retrospective, Cumulative Effect: Disability and the Welfare State, looks at how that work has reacted to both government policy on social security and the way society continues to discriminate against disabled people.
The retrospective re-examines key works from the last six years of Shape Open, an annual exhibition of work on a disability-centred theme which is run by the disability arts organisation Shape.
The new exhibition recognises that 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the post-war National Assistance Act, legislation which abolished the poor laws that had existed for hundreds of years and instead set up a new social security safety net.
Many of the works in Cumulative Effect examine the flaws and injustices of the government’s disability benefit assessment regime, and the deaths and mental distress it has caused, while others take a broader look at the impact of austerity and at society’s attitudes to disabled people.
Among the most striking works is The Black Triangle Film, Vince Laws’ silent text presentation of edited media reports on the deaths of disabled people that have been linked to government social security cuts and sanctions.
Another protest against the targeting of sick and disabled people by the social security system is Aminder Virdee’s …And the Odds and Sods, a solid wood sculpture of a single dice that has “fit to work” or “not fit to work” written on each of its six sides (pictured).
She created the piece in 2013, following her own experience of the work capability assessment (WCA) system the previous year.
Despite a number of physical impairments stemming from a progressive muscle-wasting condition, as well as experience of mental distress, she had been found fit for work.
She said: “I had a really bad experience with the assessor, who just saw me as someone who dressed well and used make-up and therefore looked well.”
It took her months to appeal successfully to a tribunal.
Much of her art is about disability, she said, because “that underpins everything I do”, including the stereotypes she has to confront in her daily life.
She said: “A lot of my work confronts mixed identity aspects of being a disabled woman of colour also living with mental illness, and how I like to confront the myths and stereotypes of living with mental illness when you are also disabled.”
She added: “Someone came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know how you do it because if I was in your shoes, I would have killed myself.’
“If I say I am depressed, people say, ‘Of course you are, you’re disabled.’
“I am not ‘depressed’ because I am disabled.”
She said she realised when viewing the other pieces in the exhibition how relevant all the work still was today, even pieces dating back to 2012-13.
Virdee said it was “upsetting” to realise that her own piece and other works in the exhibition were still relevant today, and she added: “It really highlights the lack of change.”
Another powerful exhibit is Lizz Brady’s Hitting My Head Against a Brick Wall, a print created by the artist – who has a mental health condition – literally hitting her head against a brick wall in frustration at the rejection of her personal independence payment claim.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, she explains: “I felt that no matter what I did or said, however I made my point of how I struggle with my disability, that I wasn’t listened to, that I was just a number to them.
“Having invisible disabilities hindered me in this political process.”
The Calliper Kid Beats the 20 Metre Rule, by Jason Wilsher-Mills, responds to the government’s much-criticised mobility rule – introduced with the new personal independence payment – that led to tens of thousands of customers losing their Motability vehicles.
Fuck the DWP, by Justin Piccirilli, is another to protest at the dehumanising and humiliating WCA process, while A War Against Disabled People, by Stephen Lee Hodgkins, summarises the government’s austerity-driven attacks on disabled people’s support.
There are also works, like Dolly Sen’s Help the Normals and Katherine Araniello’s Pity, that mock the charity model of disability, with Sen arguing that it is “better to have rights, equality and the withdrawal of oppressive practices, than someone’s pity and spare change”.
Lizzy Rose’s Chronicillness Zine – a collection of memes that were previously shared online under the hashtag #chronicillness – explores the relationship between the internet and disability, while Carly Jane’s Strangers – which includes a wheelchair re-imagined as a deckchair – addresses common discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people.
Rose, who has a chronic illness, designed her zine at a time when she was very ill and “couldn’t really go out that much” and instead began to connect online with other people with chronic illness.
She said it was important to find ways to ensure that artists with chronic illness can turn their experiences into art to “ensure that there is that voice within the art world”.
She added: “I am very interested in taking the experience of illness and turning it into something else.”
Several pieces, like Sophie Hoyle’s Permastress, examine the experience of mental illness, with her work questioning the technology used to measure psychiatric conditions, which reduces lived experience to numerical data.
In her piece, the order in which eight video clips were played was controlled by biofeedback equipment, including an electrocardiogram machine and a skin sensor that measured the anxiety levels in her body through electrical signals and sweat levels.
In contrast, the videos showed the visual manifestation of her anxiety through body language, gestures and facial expressions.
Hoyle said: “For some reason, people always seem to be more convinced by empirical data.”
She pointed to the connections between her piece and many of the other works in the exhibition which focus on the bureaucratic processes that disabled people “have to undergo to prove disability”, while other exhibits are about “social invisibility”.
She said: “There is the contradiction of having to prove yourself and still not being seen.”
David Hevey, chief executive and artistic director of Shape Arts, said the exhibition showed how good art can emerge from crisis.
He said the artists had produced work in response to that crisis and the attacks on disabled people that was “angry, witty and entertaining”.
He said Shape had been working both with its existing community of disabled artists but also developing new, emerging talent, much of which was appearing in the exhibition.
Sara Dziadik, the exhibition’s curator, pointed to The Black Triangle Film as one of the most powerful exhibits.
She said: “Sometimes it’s easy in the day-to-day to gloss over things and forget that there are real people living through this day-to-day.
“The amazing thing about art is it can translate emotions into something relatable and translatable.”
She said that art can be a good tool to “open up conversations” about disability.
She added: “Hopefully, people will look around and feel they can talk about their own experiences and the experiences of people they know.”
Cumulative Effect: Disability and the Welfare State, is at Hoxton Arches, Cremer Street, London E2 8HD until Sunday (11 November), and is open each day from 10am to 6pm
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