Get to Know: 40 Years of Shape Arts

Get to Know: 40 Years of Shape Arts

Header Image: ‘Strangers’ (2013) by Carly Jayne, 2014 Shape Open winner

Shape Arts is a disability led arts organisation working to provide opportunities and support for disabled artists, as well as disabled individuals wanting to work in the arts and cultural sector. Not So Popular's Jade French caught up with Arts Engagement, PR and Marketing Officer Lulu Nunn to find out more...

Could you tell us a little about Shape Arts and your role there?

Shape works to end the marginalisation of disabled people in the arts. Disabled people are excluded from the arts as audiences, workers and artists or creatives and a lot of this comes from ignorance, prejudice and lack of opportunities so we address this on all fronts. I’m Shape’s resident loudmouth - my role is Arts Engagement, PR and Marketing Officer which means that I connect Shape with our audiences and make sure people know that we’re here and what we’re doing. I put on a couple of events every year, spread the word about Shape and make sure we’re getting out there as much as possible.

Shape Arts has been going for 40 years, what have been the key milestone achievements to date? Could you pick out a couple of artists who exemplify the work Shape Arts has accomplished over the years?

Having Yinka Shonibare MBE become our patron was incredible for us – he totally gets and endorses what we do which means so much to us. He actually started out working for us back in the early nineties and now is one of the most well-known artists in the world, and possibly the most well-known disabled artist, so, for us, he exemplifies our work (and hopefully he agrees). Setting up our Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary was also a huge moment because it meant we could offer disabled artists a genuinely important, respected and strong opportunity to develop their practice that is equal to many of the opportunities offered to non-disabled artists – a large bursary and a long residency at a respected gallery. We previously held the ARMB residency at galleries including the Camden Arts Centre and the Bluecoat and next February to April it’ll be taking place at Turner Contemporary. We’re always looking to the future here as, even though disabled people have come a long way in terms of gaining rights over the last 40 years, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Could you explain the ‘Social Model of Disability’ and why it’s important to have such a framework in place at Shape Arts?

Lots of people ask why we say ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’ instead of ‘differently-abled’, ‘different’, ‘special’ or ‘diffability’ – this is because we use the Social Model, which holds that a person isn’t disabled because of their impairment, health condition or differences but by physical and attitudinal barriers in society – prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion - that disable people. The Social Model was developed by disabled people to identify and take action against discrimination, and to centre equality and human rights, in contrast to the Medical Model, which centres care, cure and welfare and places responsibility and blame on the individual for their ‘shortcomings’. Under the Social Model, it is on society to make changes, not on the disabled person, which is why it’s so important for individuals and organisations to understand and then make the changes required to stop marginalising and excluding people whose bodies and minds don’t comply with society’s idea of what is normative and acceptable.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE: How To Blow Up Two Heads At Once (Gentlemen) – image Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt

Yinka Shonibare, MBE: How To Blow Up Two Heads At Once (Gentlemen) – image Axel Schneider © MMK Frankfurt

The next Shape Open Exhibition is themed ‘Power: The Politics of Disability', what would you give as an example of the most powerful/political disability art you have come across?

There’s so much! Disability arts has a really rich history and many people don’t even realise that some of their favourite artists are or were disabled and that a lot of their work is or was informed by disability in some way; Frida Kahlo made so much work discussing her identity as a queer, disabled woman of colour, but this is often overlooked and written off as her discussing herself very personally rather than reflecting experiences shared by many people. In a way, most if not all art that discusses disability is political and deals with issues of ‘power’. Last year Christine Sun Kim had an incredible show at Carroll Fletcher which involved an installation demonstrating deafness, and the way that it was communicated to audiences, for me, gave the artist a lot of power over the viewer in that she controlled their sensory and physical experience of the space. I also recently heard a story about deaf performance artist Aaron Williamson, who’s one of our trustees, attending an art talk that was not BSL interpreted, despite it being marketed as such. He spontaneously left the room to stand behind the glass wall partitioning it from a neighbouring room, watching silently with his arms folded, to demonstrate why this was such an unacceptable issue. Really powerful action.

Frida Kahlo: 'Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill', 1951

Frida Kahlo: 'Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill', 1951

What has changed within the arts scene in the 40 years Shape Arts has been operating? 

Disability arts initiatives first began in the realms of performing arts – Shape was initially set up by Gina Levete MBE, a dancer, in 1976 because she recognised that disabled people had very little opportunity to participate in the arts but also that the arts have a really great ability to break down barriers, give people the opportunity to express their identities and breed communication and empathy between different groups of people. Back then, most people thought that the idea that disabled people could perform was laughable; now, you can see Graeae Theatre Company at Latitude festival. The progress this movement has brought about is also gradually moving to encompass contemporary visual art too, though a Google search will show you that, while so many contemporary art groups and organisations now acknowledge how important it is to work with and support less-represented or marginalised people, disabled people are still left out of a lot of conversations and having to fight their own corner. We’re committed to changing this and, since we turned our attention to visual arts ten years ago, it is getting better!

Do you feel the arts is more inclusive of disability arts, or is the idea of politically charged art (such as what you're looking for in Shape Open) finding less of a home in the 'white cube'?

I feel that, still, much of what people consider ‘political art’ is actually art about conflict, anti-capitalism and political corruption; many people don’t realise that art discussing marginalisation is inherently political, despite the fact that it is linked to, or demonstrational of, social activism. It’s the former that has an established home in the ‘white cube’ gallery. A lot of disabled artists don’t like to be identified as a ‘disabled artist’, even when they work with sociopolitical themes, which I feel is largely due to prejudices around disability and the fact that, in the art world, being disabled can totally override other identities that an artist has, or it can feel like a qualifier. I understand not wanting your work to be viewed through a lens, but I feel like we’re getting more to a place now, especially in art, where we can demonstrate that assimilation isn’t the goal, identifying and expressing differences and knowing that they don’t define your artistic output is, and this art is what gets the conversations going that lead to better social justice.

Maybe identity does always inform the work you make in some way - I don’t want to be called a ‘woman artist’ because it implies that just an ‘artist’ would be a male artist, and that this would be the default; equally, my gender is an important part of my identity that I don’t want to be erased, especially not when I’m still experiencing daily misogyny because of it. Ignoring the identities of marginalised people means that you’re ignoring the oppression that has happened is happening to them – for example, when did anyone who ever claimed that they ‘don’t see skin colour’ actually represent and work towards real racial diversity and a desire for equality? 

Isa Genzken: Wolkenkratzer für New York (detail), 2014. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Isa Genzken: Wolkenkratzer für New York (detail), 2014. Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Can quotas alleviate inequality in sectors such as the arts?
There is a lot to be said for quotas and I do think that they work in some ways, but I personally also feel that they are an easy, ‘quick-fix’ way to get around a complex problem of exclusion. If you’re implementing quotas for different identities in, say, your workforce, the artists you represent or the exhibitions you cover in a magazine, you should really be looking at how you might be excluding people - it’s often to do with marketing, training, branding or, in the case of disability, not making physical adjustments. Even if you fill your quotas, if you haven’t made any real changes within your organisation’s structure and way of thinking and operating I don’t think it’s truly going to be much more inclusive.

Do you think the institution of the 'gallery' still hasn't caught up to the more inclusive arts that we can find online/Instagram?

Definitely – some galleries are fantastic and place access and inclusion right at the forefront of what they do, but these are mostly the big institutions that have diversity policies to stick to. For most cutting-edge, independent or commercial galleries access either isn’t on their radar or they think that being more accessible will be a huge (and unjustifiable) stretch on resources. One particular blue chip London gallery has a huge turnover but their buzzer entry system means deaf people can’t actually get into the building to see the art – this would be so easy to rectify by just having a text phone entry option on the front door.

It’s like there’s this feeling that access isn’t sexy or trendy, but imagine if your gallery physically excluded a different group of marginalised people so blatantly – unthinkable.

Ryan Gander: Heralded as the new black. Installation view, Ikon Gallery.

Ryan Gander: Heralded as the new black. Installation view, Ikon Gallery.

A lot of avant-garde people and organisations in the arts really pride themselves on inclusion and equality when it comes to gender, race and sexuality yet ignore disability - I watched an artist who is dedicated to centring her creative practice on social justice belligerently tear down an audience member with a learning disability at a talk she gave a few months ago just because she wasn’t asking the ‘right’ questions. Thankfully though some artists and organisations are really on it, which gives me hope and shows that access and inclusivity is totally do-able and doesn’t compromise your artistic integrity or organisation’s ‘feel’. 

How do you avoid disability arts being marginalised by an audience? Is it partly down to the curator, if so how should curatorial practice take into account disability art?

It is partly down to the curator – if a curator only works with non-disabled, straight, white, cis artists then they’re part of the problem (and not a very good curator); the same goes for gallerists who only represent or show work by non-disabled people.

In the arts, disabled people are the marginalised group with the fewest allies, yet they are also the most excluded, so really I think the first step is for people to accept and then work on their prejudices; when I say to people ‘art by disabled people’, they think of art therapy, hobbyist art and the sort of brightly-coloured paintings you find on hospital walls, they don’t think of Toulouse-Lautrec, Park McArthur, Van Gogh, Ryan Gander, Chuck Close, Isa Genzken.

If you’re a curator who wants to put together a show that includes disabled artists, the first thing is to make sure that the space hosting the show is fully accessible; the second thing, if it’s an open callout, is to make sure that you advertise that the space is accessible and that the call-out is open to disabled people. Also – get us to promote it! If you have an artist in mind who you want to work with who is disabled, familiarise yourself with the Social Model, the correct language to use and what access requirements they might have.


How to Help Shape Arts

"It can be as simple as retweeting us, telling people about us or coming to our shows – like when our Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary recipient will be in residence at Turner Contemporary, Margate next year, and we’ll also be holding the Shape Open in London around the same time. The best thing would be to listen to what we’re saying and use whatever influence and resources you have to make changes in line with our mission, for example, if you run an art space and there are steps up to the front door, buy a ramp; if you’re a curator, make sure your shows have hand-outs available in large print; if you’re an artist talking part in a talk, tell the organiser to book British Sign Language interpreters. At Shape we’re really proud of the Disability Equality Training we offer for cultural organisations looking to be more inclusive – if you work at an arts organisation, suggest it to your boss. We’re a charity, so you could always give us some money too… I’m joking (kind of), but basically – get involved with us!"

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