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Review of Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement

Anna Berry’s curated exhibition – Art & Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement

Anna Berry’s curated exhibition displays some of the artwork, as well as objects used by activists, that raised awareness and affected social and political change for disabled people during the Disability Arts Movement. The exhibition sheds light on the movement in an authentic and accessible manner by unravelling individuals’ stories and experiences through their artwork and performance.

The Disability Arts Movement consisted of a group of artists and activists who became an important part of the Disability Rights activists’ campaign for civil rights and fought against their marginalisation, particularly in the arts and culture. Their struggle contributed to the subsequent social and political change, namely the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. Anna Berry’s inclusion of the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive timeline, which tracks the development of the events of the Disability Arts Movement from the 1970s to the 2010s, within the exhibition roots the artwork in this socio-political context and brings the artists’ political messages to the forefront. In light of this, the exhibition documents the historically and politically significant movement, creating a museum-like space. Yet each artwork and object tells a story of an individuals’ experience of disability in society and their struggle for civil rights.

Each artwork is an expression of individuality and explores the artists’ personal experience of disability within society. This is particularly evident in Tanya Raabe- Webber’s earlier artwork through which she explores and celebrates her identity as a Disabled Artist. The quotations that accompany her paintings offer a deeper insight into her personal experience of being disabled, for example she describes the symbolism of the crutches in her work Backbone as “a metaphor for my cultural heritage and perspective as a Disabled Artist. They are a constant in my life and are part of my body, my art and my identity.” Nancy Willis similarly utilises the self- portrait to “create new images of disability as a true expression of the lives we were living.” Through such artworks these artists celebrate their identity as a disabled person, whilst retaining underlying references to the barriers created by social attitudes to disability, beauty and normality.

Jessica Litherland and Anna Berry at the opening of Anna’s exhibition.

The exhibited artists are preoccupied with critiquing society through their artwork, namely for its approach to disability and barriers it creates for disabled people. There is an overriding message that echoes the social model of disability, that the root of the problem is that the individual is disabled by society’s treatment. This is powerfully evoked in the work of Tony Heaton OBE through which he offers a critical commentary upon a disabling world. His message is conveyed through his sculpture work, such as Split (1995) and more dramatically through his performance piece Shaken not Stirred (1992) in which he protested against the way charities depicted disabled people in patronising ways. A similar satirical critique was adopted by artists such as Adam Reynolds, David Hevey and Steve Cribb, offering a humorous engagement with disability culture and politics through their artwork.

Through artwork, objects and the supporting text, this exhibition sheds light on the history of Disability Arts Movement and their pivotal role in the struggle for Disability Rights. Yet, whilst the exhibition looks back at our recent history and critical turning points, its continued relevance apparent. The exhibition itself is the outcome of Anna Berry’s year long placement at the MAC as part of DASH’s Curatorial Commissions programme. The programme aims to make the visual arts sector more inclusive and accessible. There is a lack of Disabled people in positions of influence within the visual arts and the Curatorial Commissions aims to support the development of Disabled curators. Thus the exhibition marks further progression towards greater accessibility and inclusivity, both it its content and layout. The inclusion of a BSL video and tour, as well as braille information panels creates an accessible exhibition space for all audiences and, in conjunction with the artwork, sends a clear message of breaking down barriers and promoting greater inclusively in the artwork and for its audiences.