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1 July 2005

Melissa Mostyn gives a potted history of Deaf culture stating the case for a Deaf Arts Salon

1880: The international Milan Congress votes against the use of sign language in deaf education.

1889: An unexpectedly high number of works by deaf artists, including Paul-François Choppin and Rene Desperriers, are exhibited in the 1889 Paris Salon.

1926: François Crolard and Valentfn Zubiaurre establish the Salon International des Artists Silenceux in France.

1934: After five intermittent years, the Salon International exhibits for the first time outside France in the Roerich Museum, New York, as The International Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts by Deaf Artists. Evidence has not materialised so far of it exhibiting since.

2003: British Sign Language (BSL) is officially recognised.

2005: Salon takes off - in the process re-establishing deaf visual art in the UK.

Future reality or a far-fetched dream? Presumptuous though this may sound, it's true that for too long, the needs of deaf visual artists have been neglected, both within the mainstream and without, causing them to lose confidence in their creative talents. Unlike in America, where Gallaudet University and Rochester Institute of Technology have rallied round in their support of deaf visual art - spawning a home-grown art movement, Deaf View Image in Art(De'VIA), in the process - there is no deaf-led support structure dedicated to the development of deaf visual art in the UK.

A major reason for this is the performing arts - or at least the glamour attached to it. In the last decade the launch of TV soap operas Rush and Switch, deaf film festivals and Deaf Raves up and down the country have contributed to a surge in deaf performance, TV and film, with various young members of the Deaf Community consolidating their new celebrity status through a burgeoning passion to make and star in their own shorts or sign-karaoke pop videos. Indeed, promoting their second Film and TV Awards this November, BSL website video clips by the deaf-led multimedia production company Remark! clearly emphasise the event's high-wattage glamour rather than its purported recognition of deaf film and TV talent.

While I do not intend to demean genuinely talented deaf performers such as Deafinitely Theatre and Sign Dance Collective - both of whom have more than earned their repute - unfortunately the increased opportunities afforded by performance has attracted so many deaf people that it has completely eclipsed deaf visual art. As a result few deaf arts managers incorporate deaf visual art into their event programmes as an artform in its own right - if at all.

This shouldn't happen. There are historical records of deaf visual artists succeeding within the mainstream over centuries - at some point despite the suppression of BSL by the Milan Congress - and the decision to promote British Deaf Culture and BSL through performance and film seems blinkered when De'VIA has already proved visual art's continuing capability for multi-layered exploration of deaf identity - and to break into the mainstream.

Hence Salon: a group of deaf visual artists based in the South East. Limited to the one region though it may currently be, Salon at least aims to revive the passion for deaf visual art that its French precursor once had and bring it to the UK. We recognize the desire of many deaf visual artists to have the time, motivation and space to develop their arts practice - something that is sorely lacking in resources for - and hope with the support of Arts Council England to offer them just that.

Why Salon? As well as having historical links, the name was picked for its instant commercial appeal: the artistic equivalent of a shop window brimming with a variety of contemporary treatments that make you go, I want one! Salon aspires to become a showcase of deaf visual art as varied as the follicially-taxing fashions that might emerge from a hairdressing salon. Salon has no political bias: we want to support deaf visual artists regardless of the subjects and themes they want to explore. Far more important is the cultivation of a culturally diverse environment in which deaf visual artists can network, share ideas, make art and work as equals within the mainstream should they wish to.

Certainly, it takes time and money for any visual art to develop and make an impact on the public. But if we pull it off and make history with a new breed of contemporary visual art, it will be because we have worked hard at our cutting-edge talents before displaying the results in a Salon. http://www.salonart.org.uk
 

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