Monday, May 7, 2012

Is your name Frida?

Who would you think of if you had to name a visual artist (one who paints, draws, collages, photographs, creates fibre art, etc) with a disability? Who would you think of?
Frida Kahlo.
Who else could you name?
So when I lament at the state of artists with disabilities people often respond with "Well, what about Frida Kahlo?
I throw my hands up-it's a gesture of OH MY GOD, NOT HER AGAIN!!! She seems to be the one artist known for having a disability.
She comes up every time that I suggest that the arts is missing out on amazing talent because society and the institutions that support the arts has not accepted us. In fact the level of discrimination-by-ignorance in the arts in Canada is particularly bad compared to the rest of the Western world.
Looking back through an historical lens Frida Kahlo made it seem like a pretty easy venture despite her personal losses- permanent injury and pain, unable to have children because of her accident, and tumultuous relationships.
Without a doubt Frida was naturally talented and incredibly determined, but in addition to those personal qualities she also had the benefit of growing up in a wealthy family who encouraged her to participate in sports in an era when feminism was almost unheard of and she was regularly exposed to intellectual and political debate with family and friends. Economic opportunity and intellectual exposure, the ability to think critically from an early age would have undoubtedly provided her with vital tools in shaping her future.
There are no statistics on how many artists in Canada have disabilities. Therefore there are no statistics on the income levels of artists with disabilities either. There is no information on how much artwork hanging in the National Gallery of Canada has been made by an artist with a disability. Naturally many artists develop disabilities over time or they reach an age were they find that their sight, their hearing or the mobility changes. Or they develop chronic pain.
That's life.
I think that there is also a difference with artists who have become successful professional artists and only later develop a disability than those who are born with a disability. For those who have established their careers prior to developing a disability means that they have had a significant natural resource that others have never had- energy.
 One of the best places to meet artists is at the openings of art exhibitions. But beyond the possible barrier of stairs or a heavy door to get into a gallery there are many other factors that can affect the ability to even get to the gallery.

Receptions are often in the evening. I'm usually too tired by the evening to go out even if I really want to. If I do manage to go out the next factor will likely be whether I can find parking close enough to the gallery to walk from my car to the site. If I can't find reasonable parking I will drive around in search of a spot a few times before I finally turn around and go home. If I do find a parking spot my next concern is probably two fold- safety walking in the downtown core by myself. I'm small. My son who is nine years old is almost as tall as me now. I walk slowly and use a cane or a walker.

Frida Kahlo is a legitimate representative of artists with disabilities but that only underscores the fact that a representative must therefore be a part of a group of many similar individuals. That one woman's history is proof that a renowned artist living with a disability(disabilities) has existed does not negate the fact that there are thousands of artist right now struggling for many of the same things that Frida struggled for half a century ago.

We can't or at least we shouldn't live in an historical vacuum we should learn from it.
So, I guess my point is that the arts and disability world cannot begin and end with Frida.

We as artists with disabilities are a group that are neatly hidden by the barriers created in having to manage health/illness/disability, as well as economic and chronic accessibility issues- mobility and the same opportunity to access professional instruction in order to become artists. For example if you want to study painting at the University of Manitoba and you cannot manage to get up or down stairs then you cannot hope to become a painter, at least not there. The University of Manitoba is building a new School of Art, but they're leaving the painting department in the old barn (The University of Manitoba originally focused primarily on agricultural studies and the painting barn was converted from a livestock barn) as it is. The school administration told my friend to focus on completing some of her other course credits that she needed in order to earn her degree. The problem is that she doesn't want a degree, she wants to learn to continue to push her skills as a painter which usually is developed by having access to high-quality guidance from professional senior artists.
She did manage to go to one or two years of classes in the painting barn. On painting days her husband would drive her to school and carry her up the stairs in the barn. After class he would carry her down them too.

Exclusion is not passive. The lack of information on what students of fine arts need and what artists with disabilities need is not a passive decision. It is an ongoing choice made with all of the information available to architects, university administration, provincial government and federal government too. They all know about reasonable accommodation.
The onous is almost always put on the individual by implying that there is only the one person who has ever needed extra (re: costly) help and it's you. Yes, because of you we might have to spend money on something we've been getting away with for decades despite knowing about universal access, reasonable accommodation and barrier free design. The terminology may change but the resources available to inform public institutions has only grown. But because of you and only you we will not be able to give the rest of the student body new desks or chairs or heated classrooms! Because of your unique situation as a student with a disability, something that in the entire history of our university we have never experienced we will have to accommodate you and as a result everyone else will have to suffer .

Contemporary art is not so much about what you see or hear, but the story behind the work and the time it takes to develop ones own visual vocabulary as an artist and to carve out a niche that is socially relevant and compelling (or in some cases repellant.) If artists with disabilities are seldom being seen or heard then the arts dialogue is incomplete. What are we losing as a result?

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