Katherine Araniello: Tributes to ‘force of nature’ and ‘creative genius’

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Disabled artists and activists are mourning the death of Katherine Araniello, a “force of nature” who leaves behind a “hugely significant” disability arts legacy.

Araniello was a performance and video artist who used satire and subversive humour at the expense of “dehumanising and patronising” targets such as disability charities, the Paralympics and media representation of disabled people.

Tony Heaton, chair and former chief executive of Shape Arts, said Araniello was “an original and independent thinker” with a “wicked sense of humour and irony”, and her death was a “huge and devastating loss”. 

Disability Arts Online said on Twitter that she was “a force of nature with such a sardonic wit that permeated all of her artworks” and would be “sorely missed by the disability arts community”.

The disabled Labour politician Mary Griffiths Clarke praised her “unrivalled wit and creative genius” and said on Twitter that the news of Araniello’s death had caused shockwaves across the disability rights movement.

In an interview with David Hevey for the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), Araniello said she first became politicised as a disabled person after leaving segregated education and discovering the concept of independent living through Greenwich Association of Disabled People, led at the time by Rachel Hurst.

She said: “From Rachel Hurst, I realised that for me there was only the social model of disability and being politicised… [which was]a far more natural way of thinking.”

Araniello was involved in the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT), which she said was “an adrenaline rush” because it was aimed at “blatant discrimination”, and the Block Telethon protests of the early 1990s, and also took part in direct action protests with the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN).

She told Hevey: “It was absolutely nauseating to watch on television people raising thousands of pounds for people that identified very much so as someone like me.

“It was a humiliating thing to watch on television.”

She said that involvement in a movement of other disabled people who felt the same as she did had been empowering because “collectively it became very powerful”.

Among her work were the films she made parodying Channel Four’s adverts for the Paralympics(pictured), where “there were so many things that were offensive but you would only realise it if you had a critical eye to such narratives”.

She had been appalled at the decision to merge the London disability arts festival Liberty with National Paralympic Day.

A close friend of the late David Morris – whose idea it was to set up Liberty – she told Disability News Service (DNS) in 2013: “It feels like Liberty has become a sideline and the Paralympic side has taken the forefront, and I am absolutely disgusted about it.

“I am not aware of any arts organisation that would merge with sport, but because it is disability it seems perfectly acceptable.

“The other part I despise is that Paralympians are suddenly becoming spokespeople on disability when actually they haven’t engaged on that level because it isn’t what they do.”

She was dismissive of any suggestion of a legacy from the London 2012 Paralympics, arguing that life for disabled people had worsened since London 2012, with benefit cuts and the increasing difficulty of securing the funding they needed to ensure their independence.

She said: “We are feeling the threat. It is a threat to our existence and our future, participating in the world and contributing.”

Araniello said the Paralympics had painted a representation of disabled people “being capable and able in a sporting environment… an environment they are used to working in”.

She said: “But if you take them out of that environment… disability and access and barriers become all too paramount.

“It is quite insulting to be honest to be in the mindset that people who do sport are going to change the future of other disabled persons’ lives, because they are not.”

She added: “The only positive that I see is I like the idea of seeing more disabled people being represented in the mainstream. If it has to be sport, then so be it.”

Among the many disability rights campaigns she supported were those to save the Independent Living Fund and to fight off attempts to legalise assisted dying.

In 2014, she told DNS that defeating Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill was probably “the most fundamental issue” facing disabled people, because “if we are dead, nothing else matters”.

She said: “I see myself here today as protesting to save my life and everybody else’s life… We are all terminally-ill, we are all going to die at some point.”

She said it was deeply ironic that 20 years ago, she had been protesting to make buses accessible and “now, 20 years on, I am protesting to save my life and other disabled and elderly people’s lives”.

Araniello had a master’s degree in fine art from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she won the Warden’s Purchase prize for her pop video parody I Like That, having previously secured a first class degree in fine art from London Guildhall University, where she had been awarded the Owen Rowley Prize for her short film Slapping.

She often worked alone, but also collaborated with other disabled artists.

In 2006, she formed The Disabled Avant-Garde with Aaron Williamson.

Together, they produced films such as Amazing Art, Unbelievable, Damaged Dance and Stage Invasion, in which they invaded the stage at the 2011 Liberty festival to announce that “disability art is dead”.

Williamson said that it was a selection of their films that were shown as Melvyn Bragg was interviewing the disabled artist Yinka Shonibare in 2007 that prompted Shonibare to declare that disability arts was the last remaining avant-garde movement, a comment Bragg referred to in an article in The Guardian and which is often repeated.

Williamson, who told DNS of his grief at the loss of his friend and former collaborator this week, said: “Part of our armoury was aimed at the mainstream ‘able’ society.

“But also, we were extremely critical of the hubris and the sanitised versions of ‘disability art’ that were dominant during our period of operations.

“We had innumerable rejections of art proposals from so-called ‘disability art’ schemes, even as we were being critically acclaimed around the world.”

In an interview published by the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies in 2013, Araniello said her work was “always about giving fresh, alternative perspectives on disability” and creating work that would “shift people’s perspectives on contemporary issues of disability”.

Among the many art galleries and festivals that showed her work were Tate Modern, Tate Britain, DaDaFest, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Serpentine Gallery, the Canadian Arts and Disability Festival, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Michigan.

She was also on the board of the Live Art Development Agency.

Heaton said: “I thought Katherine was an original and independent thinker who thought disabled people should be politicised and embrace the social model. 

“She was an early proponent of disability arts and her work, often subversive, falls clearly within the canon of disability arts; her work made people question, quite rightly, the way society marginalises disabled people.

“She had a wicked sense of humour and irony, very evident in her work, and she was always great company to be with. 

“Her death is a huge and devastating loss and it’s vital we keep Katherine’s life and work in the public arena.”

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