Colin Hambrook reflects on entering the first open exhibition to embrace Disability Arts and asks how we push the debate for quality to a further level.
Pushing the disability agenda has always been a struggle - a struggle which some disabled people have taken to the streets and even put their lives at risk for. Nowadays there is still a strong sense of the need to challenge attitudes and prejudice, but there is less of a sense of cohesion and purpose. There was a time, not so long ago, when Disability Arts was about standing up to be counted as a disabled person. Now, it seems, the issues are a lot more complicated. In part this is to do with the shift of emphasis from performing arts to visual arts. Holton Lee's First Disability Arts Competitive Exhibition, was surely a manifestation of that shift.
Disabled artists are exhibiting and touring, and proving their professionalism more than ever before. Some have argued (take a look at Paul Darke's essay Now I know why Disability Art is drowning in the River Lethe) that professionalism is the death of Disability Arts. I can see the logic of that. But I can also see that producing work, which is issue-based and also ticks the much lauded, art historical reference boxes, could the take Disability Arts an extra mile. That is certainly what I understood as a premise behind the Holton Lee competition. The exhibition had some excellent work on show, which exemplified what Holton Lee set out to do - ie. show that Disability Arts is a vibrant and developing medium. But asking all entrants to show that their work comes from a disability perspective, wasn't enough to make this a cohesive experience. Some more thought and imagination in the theme could have produced something that really pushed the debate for quality as the accompanying brochure asserted.
An addition to the exhibition comment book read, "what impressed me is that this work is about real things". This is key to Disability Arts. It's the thing that keeps me engaged and enthralled by it. Both Jon Adams Devil Drives a Yellow Car and Rachel Gadsden's Touching Angels were deserving winners of the two prizes on offer. The Yellow Car in question was a large yellow canvas with books screwed to it. They were covered with black glass plates that revealed disparate words from the text. It was a painful piece of work (apparently Jon was sick when he painted the yellow), and incredibly descriptive of how someone with dyslexia perceives a page of text.