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> > > Review: Karamel Gallery presents I Am An Artist
simple drawing of a young man

Portrait by Jason

Karamel Gallery in North London, plays host to an art exhibition produced with a group of people with learning difficulties. The students from Area 51 further education college were engaged in painting portraits of their favourite competitors. Richard Downes happened along and sent in the following review.

An artist, activist acquaintance recently bemoaned the lack of opportunities within Disability Arts. Restrictions came in subjective terms: "You can't call yourself an artist if your work is not good enough". Her point as a woman with learning disabilities was two fold: the level she had already achieved was being marked against ridiculous standards and lack of acceptance on her own terms would lead to a lack of access, learning and respect. Her activist heart felt aggrieved that in our search for equality some of our people were being left behind.

How refreshing then to stumble across an exhibition of drawings and artists by people with learning disabilities. Developed in partnership between Area 51 and Collage Arts who appointed Yana Stajno to empower learners through the acquisition of new skills and techniques the exhibition focuses on ideas of identity, ability and achievement.

Artists found themselves inspired by themselves, their friends and the predominant event of the time - The Olympics. So, still quite topical. Before developing their own work the artists worked as a group to experiment with collages before settling on their own forms and styles. This timeline is illustrated in the exhibition. If you look into the side room first, you'll see the show explodes into a rainbow of individuality as the work developed.

In exhibitions of this nature it can feel remiss to discuss individuals work or the forms that they settled on over and above the group ethic but Rebecca's and Marios's work stood out for me in terms of colour, texture  and graphic style.

Rebecca worked with complex painting techniques demonstrating a unique use of colour and a sense of perspective, which would be beyond me, the viewer. When you also think that the few weeks she spent learning also introduced her to using an easel and palette you can only wonder where she would be now if only this opportunity had presented itself earlier.

Marios is described as a draughtsman. His style is based on simple, easy lines and careful colouring. Focused entirely on the Olympics his interest goes no further than his heroes in the Cypriot team. He associates with them regardless of sport, covering cycling, swimming, equestrianism and more. For someone who started out with repeated drawings of his countries outline and flag he now stands as someone exploring, portraiture, environment and movement. Whilst I could easily live with his swimmer on my wall I am also impressed with his title 'The Happy Footballer'. You don't seem to find a lot of them these days!

It feels significant that their work has sold really well. Hence their empowerment has been somewhat assured through earnings from a diverse audience wishing to accurately reflect the true value of their work. This also reveals the commitments of Collage Arts who not only set out to educate but also to reward fairly and without question. This time they even went so far as donating their 10% fee to Area 51 - showing commitment to the individual and the community in which they live and work.

One small criticism. The exhibition seemed to miss a title. "I Am An Artist" is taken from one of the participants quotes, which given our experience within the movement and our perceived failure in not doing enough to take our people forward as quickly as our ideas. I gave it my own title, which seems apposite.

'I Am An Artist' is on show until 1 November at the Karamel Gallery, Coburg Road, Wood Green, London N22 6UJ .
Phone 020 8829 8989

The students from Area 51 joined forces with Chocolate Factory artist Yana Stajno and Collage Arts, for this creative project.