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ju90 remembers David Morris on the anniversary of his untimely death / 25 April 2011

photo of sunset over a prehistoric burial chamber

Photo of Pentre Ifan prehistoric burial chamber by Ju Gosling

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I’m back in Wales this week to run the Abnormal exhibition workshop in Milford Haven. What does it mean to be abnormal? Who decides? Do any of us actually feel abnormal? We spend an enjoyable day exploring self-portraiture and the place of the body within art from prehistoric handprints to contemporary land art.

It is particularly good to have two teenage girls present who are incredibly enthusiastic. Last month’s panel discussion in Newcastle also attracted a predominantly young audience, with students coming from Durham and Dundee as well as locally. Such is the future for Disability Arts despite all of the cuts and closures.

Poignantly, it is the anniversary of my friend David Morris’s death. David founded the Liberty Festival while he was the Mayor of London’s disability adviser, and was external inclusion lead for 2012 at the time of his death. As a poet and film-maker, David also organized salons at his home in Limehouse where a wide range of people enjoyed sharing films, poetry, music and food.

David called his gatherings Red Jesus, after the bright red statue of Jesus on the church opposite his home in Limehouse. Since he died, Katherine Araniello and I have organized various Red Jesus events in his memory, and are in the process of founding a Community Interest Company (CIC) to take the work forward. On the day of the royal wedding we are organizing a picnic for David’s friends in the wildlife area at the City of London cemetery where he is buried (contact me by email if anyone wants the details).

After the workshop, Julie Newman and I set off to remember David in a way that he would have enjoyed, at Pentre Ifan prehistoric burial chamber in the nearby Preseli mountains. From there you can see for miles over the surrounding countryside and sea, and this reminds us of the view over London from David’s ninth-floor flat.

After the sun sets, we light a candle and incense in a glass jar and set it under the capstone of the burial chamber. As the flames rise, we feed them two strips of paper containing dried rosemary for remembrance, which another friend gave out at a private memorial event for David last May. Goodbye old friend, we will always miss you. I take the jar home to use within the Memory Jars installation that I am making for the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London, where the Abnormal tour ends for four months from September.

As many DAO readers know only too well, the untimely loss of friends is a characteristic of the Disability Arts movement. In the ‘mainstream’ world, artists generally receive the most recognition after the age when non-artists retire, and this is the point when their work is purchased for important collections and when retrospectives take place. In our movement, though, many artists die before reaching this age, or are forced to give up working and abandon their creations before being shoehorned into supported housing or residential care.

The National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), currently housed at Holton Lee in Dorset, was meant to counter-balance this by documenting disabled artists and providing a purpose-built home for their work. However, the withdrawal of Arts Council funding after the Heritage Lottery Fund failed to support the project means that instead NDACA sits in boxes in the loft and outbuildings at Holton Lee, its ownership disputed between the Holton Lee trustees and the independent NDACA steering group.

As a result, David’s considerable archive sits at the back of my art storage unit in Docklands, rather than being preserved for the nation properly. How many other disabled artists’ work has been lost forever during the past 12 months, and how much more will disappear in the future before funding is finally found? Lest we forget...