re-examining the word (dis)abled – a focus on the artist Samena Rana

Inclusivity Course PG Cert. Blog on Disability.

A focus on #disabilitytoowhite Vilissa Thompson / sound artist Christine Sun Kim and Samena Rana’s art-works.

The resources that are available on Disability on the UAL website, such as these two sources https://www.arts.ac.uk/students/student-services/disability-and-dyslexia/evidence and https://shadesofnoir.org.uk/disability-progression-of-language-in-disability-studies/ are invaluable to staff and students, not only do they support disabled students on campus, offering advice, services and support they teach able bodied lecturers insight into ways that they can communicate, support and creatively nourish their students in an inclusive environment that allows the student to flourish. I have worked with children, youth and adults who have “needs” mainly students with autism and it’s important to recognise and acknowledge varying ways of communicating, understanding concepts and sharing ideas about paintings and sculpture, like anything is developing a skill that enables an able bodied person to slip into the shoes of somebody else’s and see the world from their perspective. When a lecturer share these skills and that is visible to able bodied students, they too can gain a sense of insight in the varying ways we communicate with each other and share ideas.

It’s good to read that this hashtag has been created and that it’s popularality is raising an awareness on the lack of racial diversity whenever disabled bodies are shown on public platforms. The invisibility of disability is upsetting, especially when it comes to the visual arts. When I do see disabled bodies publicly, I’m often disturbed by manner that these bodies have been represented. I have recently seen several examples where there is a focus on the disabled persons private life – the Malteasers advert springs mind. I this problematic especially where wheelchair users are concerned as it feeds into a stereotype of disabled person’s sex life. I find the images that I see of disabled people on TV reductive and narrow as they feed into the types of comments that an abled bodied person might say in response to a disabled person.

It was interesting to read how this hashtag has been embraced/rejected and the politics that surround the backlash. To me the lack of diversity in relation to disability comes down to race. Who chooses how to represent, who have the power and the access to represent and how that representation is made, boils down to those who have the privilege to do so.

I read Vilissa Thompson’s thoughts on creating the hashtag #disabilitytoowhite and her working towards stopping the erasure of disabled artists of colour (who suffer from a of lack visibility) in mainstream media. The hashtag has been popular in the sense of raising awareness about the lives of disabled people of colour. Her article also sparked a memory of a disabled South-Asian female photographer and disability activist Samena Rana (b.1956 – 1992), whose work seems to have fallen out of public view in galleries and museums, although exists in several archives and libraries (Panchayat archive, which is now housed at Tate Britain and the Stuart Hall Library at Iniva). Rana’s work explored themes of identity, disability and diaspora. She made her work using adjusted camera that was adapted so that trigger mechanism could be placed in the mouth. Rana was an activist for disabled rights and its particularly important to note how she would use the word disabled (bracketing Dis) so that focus lays on “ability”. Its good to see how she ran creative workshops for other (dis)abled participants, which I believe took place at the Diorama Arts Centre (now called the Old Diorama Arts Centre) near Euston Square Station – a place that I visited in the 90’s which is now a huge complex with a wide range of services for (dis)abled people.

Photograph by Samena Rana ‘Piss on Pity” 1992
The image is an unfinished work by Samena Rana. Rana intended to superimpose a transparency of her grandmother over an Urdu poem she composed. We have photographed the transparency over the Urdu text to demonstrate what the final image might have looked like. Rana passed away during the completion of this series. (text SADAA archive).
Samena Rana – Knives Series.

Looking at this wider and more positively is the way that some creative organisations have been given the platforms to challenge this the status of disabled bodies within the art-world. One example of this is the recent film that show disabled dancers responding to the works of art on display at Tate Britain. Their film is poetic, with the movement of their bodies mesmerising. It’s powerful to see as the focus isn’t upon the disabilities of the dancers but the on way they eloquently respond to their surroundings and the visual matter in it.

https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/dancing-art

Since the late 90’s I have been fortunate enough take part on and to work on a number of SEND community and school projects. I have collaborated with participants across a spectrum of disabilities to create different ways that we can work in a studio based environment, and creating a space that includes everybody depending on who and what their needs are; for example in one project we adapted paintbrushes so that they can be held and used by a range of people that might struggle to hold a shop bought paintbrush, this was done by adding extensions to the handle, making supports that offered a better grip to hold, widening the width of the brush handle. Altering the lighting of the studio, having and using visual aids that are bold, colourful, bright so that visually impaired can access them easier. Using a range of materials that are sensory and tactile, such as a variety of textiles, or musical instruments so that people with different needs can access learning about artworks on display on the gallery walls through touch and sound. I’ve used sewing equipment that can be accessed by everybody (such a large eyed plastic needles), and creating images through methods that we can all work on together, sharing our abilities; an example was a large scale bloc-printed frieze made by a group from Mencap. I’ve also worked on focusing on particular senses in gallery workshops, such as drawing with the less dominant hand, drawing and painting using your feet rather than hands, drawing using your body with various implements and devices such as a hula hoop, and drawing whilst wearing a blind-fold, and considering needs when accessing or experiencing paint and the spectrum of colours.

I’m grateful for these enriching experiences, I can bring them into my work at UAL (where I am an AL in Painting). They have given me a deeper insight into why somebody might be making their work in a certain way because of their needs, the way that they might think, write or speak. It’s widened my perception on the way that people respond creatively and what it is to be creative. I am more open to the fact that people will respond to making, writing, thinking in ways that I might not be familiar with, and to be accepting of that.

I can encourage students to make work that is accessible or to consider accessibility in their practice, especially when it comes to using materials and methods such as film that uses sound, or sculptural works that evoke touch, using scents that we can access to start conversation. I’ve often found there to be a lack of accessibility in installation based work, such as spaces that a wheelchair user can navigate through. I feel that is something that all students should consider when making installation work.  

The lack of diversity is an issue all round, I’m glad that its slowly changing. We do see artworks made by disabled people such as Jessie Darling, or Marc Quinn (white, male, abled bodied artist who had made a public sculpture of a disabled pregnant woman, which in itself is ridden with issues) and Donald Rodney, a black artist whose work investigates Sickle Cell, a condition that the artist had. Their works pave way for public discussion and its hugely important that their work has visibility. I have used their work frequently in teaching. However a lot more needs to change, for us all to consider race and disability combined, as I’m sure that most of us will agree that a black or brown disabled body will have a very different experience in society to a male disabled body in white skin.

One thing that is realise after reading the material for this task, is the lack of access in the building that I work in. The only access to upper floor studios is a via flight of stairs, there is no lift, and that studio spaces themselves seem narrow, which would be hard for a wheelchair user to access, this limits the types of people that can visit the degree shows and for potential lecturers to apply to work on the course, this in turn limits access of the experiences that wheelchair bound artists can share with students. I have also making a note to remember that not all disabilities are visible. I have met a number of students who simply struggle mentally to come into college because the crowded and noisy spaces trigger anxiety, stress and claustrophobia. The course reading material is a reminder to myself that ‘every’ ‘body’ is not the same and to give patience, time and thought, and do what I can through my abilities to understand and be supportive through some ‘body’ else’s creative journey.

I found it interesting to watch Sun Kim’s video and reflect upon her hearing impairment and how she uses sound in her work, as what I saw that sound can be used in many ways outside of listening. This is something that I had not reflected upon before because of my unawareness (or the lack of exposure ) to hearing impaired artists working with sound. In addition to this, since I have been reading the material about disability for this course, I have been considering disability and placing emphasis on it.

I have planned to run a workshop that explores abilities, different bodies and needs that people have today through examining the Greek sculptures at the British Museum. I plan to reflect upon the ‘damage’ that these statues have encountered on their journeys to the UK and hope that students from UAL will contribute to the conversations surrounding these themes.

Below are images from the workshop that I planned to run (as mentioned above) at the British Museum. This workshop took place mid February, 2020 and were a success. The students examined objects from a variety of galleries at the museum, they discussed, asked questions and made creative responses to the conversations that we had. The objects and artworks that we included ranged from Ancient Greek, to Egypt, then onto India. We spoke about disabled bodies, racial hierarchies, skin colour, ideals of beauty and the sexualised body in relation to colonialism.

UAL Painting students discussing and making artworks on disability, skin colour and the whitening of Parthenon statues at the British Museum 2020. Photo Credit: Raksha Patel ©
An artwork made by a 3rd year Painting student during the workshop that I ran for UAL
at the British Museum 2020. Photo Credit: Raksha Patel ©

References:

Dancing Art at Tate Britain

Nowness. Vimeo Christine-sun-kim

Confronting the Whitewashing Of Disability: Interview with #DisabilityTooWhite Creator Vilissa Thompson

Donald Rodney. In the House of My Father, 1996–7

The (In)complete Marbles? Displaying the Disabled Body. Elizabeth Waddell

Jessie Darling reviewed by Flash Art.

The Old Diorama Arts Centre https://www.olddiorama.com

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. The workshop you are proposing sounds meaningful and exciting. It may not only be worth looking at a range of bodies from greek sculpture but global culture. Could sculpting be approach through restricted senses? How could you also bring in other disabled artists of colour into your curriculum?

    1. Thanks, yes good idea to include bodies from cultures around the world. We are already doing this on SRE (Sex Relationship Education workshops). There is already an long established programme at the British Museum that have workshops SEND groups, I don’t work on those but from what I have seen they are diverse in terms of POC. Yes, sculpting can be approached using senses other than visual, such as mainly through touch or through sound.

    2. Bringing in other disabled artists into the curriculum very much depends on what is actually in the museum or gallery collection. When this is diversified we can include more into the workshops and the conversations. So, that lies more in the hands of who collects and what they choose to include on public display. Whenever an artist that has a disability and is POC has an artwork on display I’m sure to include it, especially when their work explores their disability and their race. Donald Rodney is an example of this.

  2. I agree, workshops are a great tool to introduce a subject on several levels. Since engaging with the articles on disability I have also had this in mind in finding ways to transmit it to students (product and interior designers as well as architects) and changing a workshop that I have run in the past on space and atmosphere and add ask students to experience space from new angles.
    Are you planning to run your workshop this academic year? If so please share on your blog!

    1. Hi Virginie, many thanks for your comment. I ran the workshop a few weeks ago, and talked briefly upon the different types of bodies / disabled bodies and able bodies we see in our society, it didn’t spark too much of a conversation as the workshop wasn’t specifically exploring disabilities but several different topics. However many students did choose images of ‘damaged’ sculptures and made artworks using them. I am going to attempt the same activity again soon and will feedback to you all. My feeling is that this activity would work well on within a workshop that explores ‘Body Image’, which is topic that the Museum are currently offering to young people. I think that through this activity we can begin to have conversations about different bodies are seen in society, navigate space publicly but particularly in Museum spaces and see themselves depicted in Museum/Gallery collections.

  3. I also think including the subject of disability produced by context in workshops and group discussions is very important, so that a greater awareness between students can be nurtured to cultivate change. Not only making decisions about the choice of classroom environment to give access, but allowing the group to understand why those choices have been made. The classroom/studio/museum/gallery can be a catalyst to reflect on wider society, not only how the location itself is a possible hinderance but also the journey to it.
    This type of discussion could be had right at the beginning of a course or when students are planning a show.

    1. Good idea Natasha to have this open discussion right at the beginning of a course or when students are planning a show. In my experience talking about disability tends to be contained, such as when planning a workshop for a group that have disabilities rather than for everybody so that it’s discussed regardless of who the participants or potential audiences might be.

  4. Really interesting to learn about the work of Samena Rana and to think we have examples in the Stuart Hall Library at Iniva at Chelsea! It seems that Rana’s practice could be productively explored through the framework of intersectionality (Crenshaw) in light of its various dimensions and how they may have mutually complicated the range of discrimination the artist encountered. I’m also interested in the image-making apparatus that you describe – the adjusted camera. I’m wondering if creating a prototype for contemporary practitioners with different bodies might provide insight into Rana’s practice, her approach to making images. Yet I worry that while this might encourage empathy it may also spectacularise disability by focusing on the ‘reasonable adjustments’ (social model of disability) required to make Rana’s work instead contrast to the work itself. Perhaps it’s about developing coextensive curatorial frames for complicating how this work is received.

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