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> > > Reframing the Myth: Graeae and Central Illustration Agency

Celebrating 35 years of Graeae Theatre, prominent figures from its history were paired with artists and illustrators from the Central Illustration Agency to create 40 new artworks. Kate Lovell visited the Reframing the Myth at the Guardian’s offices in London, wishing that it had shouted louder and been bolder.

A photograph of Sara Pope's piece at Reframing the Myth inspired by Jenny Sealey. It depicts a large pair of red lips with a neon light surrounding it.

Sara Pope's piece inspired by Jenny Sealey.

A big, Beckettian mouth jumps out of the back wall, the comic-red lips a playful nod to the Rolling Stones’ poking-tongue, with the final flourish a neon-lit frame around the lips. This is Sarah Pope’s work to represent Jenny Sealey, Graeae’s artistic director since 1997, and feels fitting.

The strength of Sealey’s voice in the arts world is represented, raw and loud, along with a nod to her life of lip reading and the vibrant energy of Graeae’s output. But the mouth suspended in space also conjures a sense of disabled people’s voices sometimes lost amidst the darker times of governmental attack on those it deems less valuable.

Beyond the gratifying smacker of the lips, it is disappointing to discover much of this exhibition is hidden behind an escalator, including patron Peter Blake’s underwhelming animation, chattering quietly and with little to say. Disabled people sidelined and shoved in a backroom where they belong? The irony isn’t lost on me.

An illustration by CIA’s Tobatron inspired by disability rights activist Barbara Lisicki, presented in a 'how to' guide fashion.

CIA’s Tobatron & Graeae’s Barbara Lisicki.

A row of uniform, two-dimensional poster-art images make up all but five or six artworks given the space to break this repetitive A3 swathe. These are illustrations co-commissioned by the Central Illustration Agency and Graeae Theatre.

Artists who have worked with Graeae were paired with an illustrator for a conversation which would culminate in the creation of an artwork to be placed in the exhibition, which is designed to document the creative achievements of those connected to the disability-led theatre company.

A few of the illustrations forcibly represent Graeae’s role within the fight disability arts has undertaken. An exploded image of Barbara Lisicki readying herself for a Direct Action protest, armed with her ‘Piss on pity’ t-shirt and handcuffs is drawn as a pleasing mock how-to of disabled dissent. 

A wheelchair hanging by a noose looming above a microphone knocked to the floor, drawn in dread greys and blacks, represents actor John Kelly’s activism against the closure of the Independent Living Fund.

A mixed media artwork by Rachel Gadsden inspired by actress Nicki Wildin, featuring photographs of her amidst a swirling colourful background.

Rachel Gadsden's work inspired by Nicki Wildin.

It’s apparent that some of the visual artists knew their subjects well: a five-foot tall canvas depicting the actress Nicki Wildin in mixed-media is textured, colourful and full of her personality and achievements, all credit to Rachel Gadsden for busting out of the brief and getting away with it.

Others seem to have little connection to their subject with some interpretations utterly bizarre. A vivid self-portrait in words by Robin Bray Hurran as a “short and furry Londoner...shabby around the edges...trans, queer and disabled” is visually translated into terribly dull black lettering on beige.

I long to see the work of a camera, collage, clay. I want real dynamism to tell the history of a company that has achieved so much through the individuals who express such energy but are left imprisoned by A3 conformity. Let us document the diversity of Graeae as a figurehead of disability arts with an exhibition that screams aloud with art as challenging and exciting as the theatre the company has given us, in a space that enables it to flourish. Back to the drawing board – or not – please.


Sadieei Brown

20 February 2016

I wonder if the dullness of the exhibition was informed by the dullness of the artists selected. As I have not seen the whole thing, and am not inclined to having read this review, I could be wrong in thinking that the history they choose to represent was just what had taken place in recent times, and not a fully rounded representation.

Which is of course the main problem with something like this the curatorial eye is narrow and prescriptive and well, dull.

That could also be why its under the stairs as there is no confidence in the quality of the work? Better luck next time all round methinks.