In this blog series, theatre maker Sofya Gollan offers an insightful commentary on the Disability Arts community and her experience as a 2016 Griffin Studio Artist.
Disability Arts: it is a sector of the art world that takes on Disability as its theme. It represents work that explores the conceptual ideas and physical realities of what it is like to be disabled, or concepts relating to the word ‘disabled.’
My relationship with the Disability Arts sector has never been straightforward even though I have identified as having a disability (as a professional creator) for many years now, being deaf, while also being an actor, playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker. I used to say, “I am a deaf actor, deaf writer, deaf filmmaker,” but now I don’t see the necessity to link what I am to what I do. It isn’t the identity I have to cleave to in order to create my work. Disability is one strand that weaves into the other identities of mother, mediocre cook, book reader, filmmaker, seamstress, VR and science enthusiast, and with sneaky appreciation, cats taking down toddlers on the interwebs.
The cultural context when I started out was if you had a disability and wanted a serious career in the arts it was essential to prove it would not impact on the work (or collaboration) and was irrelevant. The common opinion was if you had a disability, artistic practice was seen as a therapeutic activity that alleviated the frustrations and limitations of a small and diminished life. Not a career or a calling to express a unique viewpoint or opinion of the world. It was expected that you not mention it, not let it impact on your collaborations with others, but rather insist: “Look what I made in spite of, I am just like you”.
I understood you were allowed to have every point of view except that of Disability as a valuable and essential contribution to the arts culture. Depicting a life lived with disability was not a world-view that was sought out, cultivated, or more importantly, bought. So I made work that did not directly allude to disability, even though being deaf I identify as disabled because it has prevented me many times from participating fully in society and the opportunities that are contained therein.
But now, ironically, on a professional level, identifying with the Disability Arts movement in recent years has been the re-ignition of my career.
It’s often possible to have a disability (as an artist) and not be part of the Disability Arts scene. But it’s nearly impossible to create art without the disability shaping and informing the work. Disability Art, with its unique perspective has the potential to startle and poke the audience into seeing the world not only differently, but with awe and wonder, as all good art does.
For many it might be a surprising concept that in art, disability is to be celebrated as a new addition to the culture especially when created by those with an insider view i.e. people with disability or lived experience. In 2007, British artist Yinka Shonibare (a Turner Prize Nominee) stated the now famous quote: “Disability Arts can be seen as the last remaining avant-guarde movement”; much like feminism, LBTQ, and indigenous movements once were. Avant-garde is an admittedly over-used term, that is often taken up to describe work by young (energetic) people who believe they are reinventing the world one distressed-white-room at a time. But its simple and original meaning is: ‘the advance guard of people or works that are experimental, radical, unorthodox with respect to culture, art and society.’ I believe artists with disability are occupying that space, living and depicting their lives and experiences. They provide a fresh unique perspective on the fragility of bodies, boundaries and inclusion. Or often, exclusion.