As a photographer and filmmaker recording events meant that I was a witness to and, for a time, in the Disability Arts Movement at what felt like a more cohesive time than we have today. As someone fairly new to disability arts in the 2000s I felt like disabled artists began to be taken seriously on mainstream stages.
Years of fight had gone into this of course, it didn’t just happen. It was work and perseverance of people like Geof Armstrong, Tom Shakespeare, Paula Greenwell and Lindsay Carter, among many other artists and activists, which would continue to be carried forward even to today. It wasn’t that there was a sudden understanding in the mainstream arts sector I don’t think, as that battle still continues. The early pioneers created both space and a visibility that could no longer be ignored. Important voices were being heard. Making themselves heard.
I worked at Arcadea but also I had begun documenting the work of disabled artists both here and in my home country of Ireland so that the work would not be forgotten. There are archives about Disability Arts – the brilliant Allan Sutherland’s Chronology of Disability and the NDACA Archive – providing excellent records of the national picture. Having the materials specific to the North East, which I believe has it’s own history, role and voice in the movement, it felt important to find a way to share that. We are indebted to the artists on whose shoulders we build and make progress.
The 200os have been described as a ‘golden age’ in Disability Arts – the cohesion, the body of work produced, the raised platforms and a sense national connection through the regional disability arts agencies, and a pocket of funding over a number of years ensuring that disabled artists were supported.
A couple of stand out memories for me are The Mimosa Festival which brought together a huge array of disabled artists from all over the country, and showcased disabled artists based in the North East. It lasted for a month across September in 2006. It felt busy, productive, relevant and it felt like something really important was happening. It felt like we made inroads into venues, which might previously not have programmed disabled artists. There was a very eclectic programme across a wide variety of artforms including film, dance, comedy, photography, conceptual art, live art, painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, and music. There were a mix of scales of work shared – from the Divine Disabled Divas and theatre at the Sage, to more intimate interventions like the transformation of the early Star and Shadow space, where we made it our own in a way no-one had before or has since. It was unique. As Lindsay Carter said at the time – ‘the space has the spirit of the people who fill it’, which can be taken literally in the case of the Star and Shadow, but also of the Golden Age of Disability Arts. It was filled with action, art and hope.
An exciting part of my work was 21: The Last Avant Garde which celebrated the 21st anniversary of self-organised disability arts in the North East by presenting 21 portraits of disabled artists who had worked in the North East. There was a photographic portrait each of 21 artists, who also supplied a written statement and an object of significance described by them and shared on a small shelf next to their portrait. I felt proud to be able to capture this group of artists and an opportunity to promote their work, so there was a ripple effect from the exhibition. It marked their contribution to the arts. No-one from outside our community was doing that – gathering the work or capturing the contribution. It also felt like a moment of solidarity and showed that publicly. It needs to be seen – that we feel like a community and that we feel excluded and judged differently to other artists. The exhibition was held at Waygood Gallery and also did a mini-tour to different locations and was used in schools to share information about disability generally and also the work disabled people do. This could have been on a much bigger scale and had a much bigger impact. The launch event stays in my mind because of how much of a celebration it felt – we had food, live music, all the disabled artists were there, friends, family, and people from the arts. The artists felt celebrated.
It was a time that disabled artists felt connected and included, despite the struggle for equality. Since that time the face of disability arts has changed in many ways. In the North East, having spoken to many disabled artists over the last 18 months, people have felt disconnected and fragmented for almost a decade, but there is a feeling of a resurgence of the necessity of disability awareness, of disabled peoples’ place in the cultural landscape. There is amazing talent out there and disabled people are finding each other through different groups like Little Cog and Disconsortia, creating connections and new platforms. With a commitment from organisations like ARC Stockton to include disability art in their programme there is a definite ripple effect as we see more organisations realising that they need to do something. They probably need to upskill and gain knowledge and learning from disabled people but the arts landscape definitely has the potential to be more inclusive of the work of disabled people.