One of the more satisfying endeavors I have taken on as a volunteer is to be on the Board of the Arts and Disability Network of Manitoba.
The world of Disability Art, or at least the special influence that disability can have on forms and structure of art, has been around for a considerable period. It can be from within the artist or initiated by the environment surrounding the artist.
Last October, the ADNM mounted their annual Fair and invited deaf artist Christine Sun Kim to take part. Sun Kim explores ways of transmuting sound and silence to come to terms with her relationship with it.
The challenge posed by Christine Sun Kim was how to define her art. Was it visual, or only felt for a limited time and then as it disappears can never be experienced again? Was it personal or created to be shared by others? And the question that confronts almost every artist at some time, does it have value that would be marketable?
So here is an artist with different abilities who has to face many of the same problems that all of us artists have to face at some time or other. So what defines Disability Art as a separate cultural expression from all other art? The questions posed in this ongoing discussion are often raised around the ADNM Board table as we develop ideas for projects and connect with other arts groups for partnerships.
The Arts and Disability Network of Manitoba held its Annual General Meeting for 2014 on June 17th and Chairperson Susan Lamberd presented her report of the past year’s activities. A large part of the report included what I thought were many of the answers to some of the questions above; so much so that I thought it would be of interest to members of the general arts community who may wish to offer some input to this discussion.
The non-profit organization, Arts & Disability Network Manitoba, was formed in order to support artists with disabilities, further their careers and achieve artistic excellence.
We have a vision and mandate, but how do we go about accomplishing these in a respectful and innovative way? How do we ensure the artists with disabilities are provided with resources and opportunities that will help them further their career and engage with the audience in a meaningful way?
The development of the Arts and Disability Culture is helping pave the way. South African artist Mandla Mabila explains why it is the act of creating the art itself, not necessarily creating a distinct kind of art, which establishes one as a member of that culture.
“Art is a political tool in that when disabled people represent themselves they are going against the tradition of being represented by others,” says Mabila. “The political power is in determining not only who we are but who we can be on our own terms and art provides that possibility. Much more than this, art is a tool for celebrating our lives and taking pride in ourselves. Self-representation itself is a human right.”
The Arts and Disability Culture
The Arts and Disability Culture is a relatively new artistic awareness in Canada. At ADNM, we believe nurturing this culture and helping the growth of its members is the impetus to eliminating isolation, increasing opportunities for education, and offering better quality resources required by artists with physical, cognitive, mental or sensory differences.
Until recently, Disability Art has been historically looked on as Art Therapy. This “recreational art” often serves only to segregate the individual artist – as a person with a disability – and devalues the legitimacy of the artistic products and any political or cultural messages they may want to express. By extension, artistic excellence is secondary to the therapeutic benefits of art-making. Ironically, sometimes even the Disability Culture refuses to acknowledge the Arts and Disability Culture because the art is not “rehabilitative” or not “practically applicable”.
Today, artists with disabilities are taking back control of the representations of themselves; they’re rejecting the narrow, constraining view popular culture has of an artist with a disability – that of tragedy, illness or a curiosity to be gawked at, and expressing themselves without restrictions or barriers.
Today, the Arts and Disability Culture is a growing, legitimate, cultural group, which is developing shared cultural meanings of the collective struggle, the barriers they face, and the unique perspective Disability Art has to offer society.
Opportunities and Resources for Artists With Disabilities
Without a strong arts and disability network, assimilating into the dominant arts culture is the only choice for artists with disabilities. Because of accessibility barriers, their creativity and unique perspective often stops at the most basic entry point to the main arts culture.
Access to a larger Arts and Disability Culture brings confidence and opportunities to identify with peers who also have a unique distinctive voice. Being a member of a cultural group helps reconcile different opinions, form goals, and realize acceptance.
Audiences and Art Organizations/Programmers
In their research paper “Light, Camera, Attitude! Introducing Disability Arts and Culture” (Frazee et al, 2004) the research team at Ryerson University wrote about the connection between the artist with a disability and the audience.
Performing, creating, and talking about disability art is difficult, but audiences attest to it often being “uncomfortable” to watch, or “hard to look at”. This is why it’s so important for ADNM to foster this discourse – not only do artists with disabilities have an obligation to their growing culture, but so do the audience members, arts organizations, and arts leaders. They must also grow and mature alongside the Arts and Disability Culture.
So how can ADNM involve the audience? And more importantly, who is the audience?
Arts organizations tend to physically adapt their venues to the minimum of what the law requires for audience safety, but rarely will you see an accessible stage and backstage to accommodate an artist/performer with a disability. Disability Art may be a very powerful tool for artists with disabilities to reflect or comment on society, but the question remains – who experiences the art? Only people who have access.
Our vision and mandate are clear, but how do our members feel we should go about accomplishing them? Over the next year, ADNM will undertake a series of conversation cafés to hear from our membership.
The questions remain:
- How can we most effectively be the voice of the artist with disabilities?
- How can we better legitimize the Arts and Disability Culture?
- How do we inform and engage the audience as we inform ourselves?
- By assisting arts venues and programmers to become accessible we’re ensuring accessibility. This helps advance the careers of our artists with disabilities. But is this part of our mandate?
- Are these even the right questions to ask?
Arts and Disability Network Manitoba is growing in leaps and bounds. In only four years, we’ve become a well-known and valuable entity; we’ve increased our exposure not only in the arts community but in the disability community, the general Winnipeg community, and the national arts and disability community. We’ve opened many doors for artists with disabilities with juried art shows, festivals, mentorships, and resources.
At ADNM, we believe that Arts and Disability Culture will prove to be a major shaping force of the 21st century. We are excited to be at the forefront of this societal change. With the limitless energy and talent of our volunteer board, we’ve successfully introduced the Arts and Disability Culture to Winnipeg. We have so much more to offer and present. With the help and support of our members and the many others interested in our organization, we’ll have no problem authenticating and celebrating our cause.
Susan Lamberd is Chair of Arts and Disability Network Manitoba