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Disability in British Art

New for 2022

This group aims to address the historic absence of disabled artists and the active exclusion of disability as a compelling subject for visual art. The group will expand the field of knowledge on historical and contemporary British disabled artists and produce new frameworks that increase understanding and expertise around this previously avoided subject.

The lack of visibility of disabled people in the arts is widely evidenced, demonstrating the need to change perceptions towards disabled artists. There are few references to disability in major British collections either in terms of themes, subjects or artists. Disability, when it is addressed, is broadly treated in terms of pathology. The Disability Arts movement in Britain has been avoided by curators and writers of art history for 40 years. There is a gaping absence in curatorial language and practice, which affects the visibility of disabled artists and the perception of disability across the sector. Many artists refuse to identify as disabled or even talk about disability in the context of their work for fear of being side-lined by institutions.

For some artists, disability becomes a catalyst for their creativity, allowing evolution of innovative creative ideas that open up new conversations about humanity and being in the world. We want to explore new ways of articulating disability through curatorial language beyond the usual tropes.

We will investigate historical and contemporary British exhibitions and collections to understand how the subject has been dealt with. We will open up dialogues about artists from the past who are known to have been disabled to explore alternative interpretations of their work. We aim to create new frameworks for understanding grounded in the language associated with the lived experience of disability.

Key research questions include:

  • What are the different ways in which disability is treated as a subject in the curation of British Art?
  • How might revealing different disability narratives create new opportunities for alternative interpretations of art history and in doing so, how might this lead to increased representation of artists with lived experience of disability?
  • How can we create an accessible curatorial language and framework for understanding and interpreting disability representation in visual art, galleries and collections?

We approach disability from the social model perspective. This encompasses all disabling experiences. The group will include perspectives from a wide range of impairments and health conditions. We acknowledge that many of the ideas, assumptions and conventions for understanding disability come from different perspectives, cultures and communities, often medicalised or seen as deficient. These will be explored in the context of British Art as part of this research group. The group will consist of disabled and non-disabled curators, programmers, artist-researchers and academics.

The Disability in British Art research group is led by Ashokkumar Mistry (artist, writer and curator) and Trish Wheatley (Disability Arts Online).

Frida Kahlo barbie doll next to a photograph of the artist surrounded by flowers in a still life style

Activity for 2023

Keen to build on our previous work and using the same Core research questions (above), the programme for year two was developed to explore the nuanced dynamics at play that affected the societal attitudes, ethics and social mores surrounding the depiction, and articulation of disability in British art.  

For Meeting One we invited PHD researchers and eminent artists Rachel Gadsden and Richard Butchins to speak alongside Professor Richard Sandel, the celebrated Professor of Museum Studies and Co-Director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester. This well attended meeting was, for many audience members, a chance to go beyond assumptions and learn about existing and ongoing research that created a baseline of vital information pointing to connections between impairment or difference and the creative process and also presence of disabled people in the British art scene historically.   

The meeting raised as many questions as were reconciled and led us to arrange, for Meeting Two, a closed round table discussion to discuss the ethics of the attribution of impairment, neurodivergence or physiological or psychological difference to historical artists in order to understand their work.  Chaired and managed by Trish Wheatley and Ashok Mistry from DIBA, the round table was attended by Professor Claire Penketh, Liverpool Hope University; Dr Lucy Burke, Manchester Metropolitan University; Rachel Boyd, PHD Researcher; Rachel Gasden, PHD Researcher; Dr Paul Darke; Elinor Morgan, MIMA, Middlesbrough; Professor Simon McKeown, Teesside University; and Colin Hambrook, founding editor, Disability Arts Online.  The discussion enabled a chance to explore varying and evolving attitudes towards disability, stigmatisation and attribution that would provide an ethical guide for analysing understanding disability in the context of British art that would guide the ethics of our research group in future discussions. 

Meeting Three explored best practice, lived experience particularly in art writing and curatorial work. This was a hybrid meeting held at The Foundry in London and Online via Zoom. Panellists were independent artist and curator, Sam Metz; Melanie Grant, Wellcome Collection; and Kate Adams, Project Art Works.   

The meeting interrogated curating and interpreting the work of disabled artists and disability as well as looking at nonverbal forms of interpretation.  This was all achieved by the rich stories presented by our speakers and our lively online and in person audiences.   

Our work during Year two has encouraged the confidence and openness for disability focused conversations.  As we talk to colleagues, the institutional permeability is palpable and we hope this will allow us to reach into deeper layers of detail to understand the dynamics that surround Disability In British Art.  

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