Firstly, many thanks to Ruth Gould and her brilliant team at DaDaFest in Liverpool for inviting Dao to be a part of what must be one of the most important International Festivals of Disability Arts in the world. It was a powerful feeling to be part of a Congress of disabled artists from different parts of the globe coming together to share work, process, experience and ideas.
In the UK our sense of being part of a disability arts community has been fairly battered over the last decade or so with the disbandment of so many of our organisations and the whittling away of the values that were so strongly shared back in the 1990s.
One of the key things that DaDaFest 2014 gave us, aside from a reappraisal of the work that we’ve been so passionately committed to and the history of our movement over the past several decades, was a strong sense of how the messages of disabled peoples’ empowerment through the Arts, is trickling out to all quarters of the globe, to the Middle East and to Africa. It was fantastic that the British Council were able to bring representatives from the Middle East. And that artists Zahra AlDhamin from Saudi Arabia and Safiya AlBahlani from Oman whose artwork featured in Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor project, were also able to attend.
DaDaFest Chair Jane Cordell opened the Congress saying that “being disabled is being human, writ large”. Allan Sutherland gave the first speech about the journey so far, giving an impassioned critique of where we have come from as a movement and how we are slipping back in the UK with notions of disability access and disability rights being ever eroded in a backlash in attitude change prevalent as a direct result of the recession. We are living in difficult times.
Allan reminded us of Jayne Earnscliffe’s ‘In Through the Front Door’ - an Arts Council publication about good examples of access in the visual arts first published in 1992. And how, incredibly wheelchair-users can no longer enter Arts Council’s main London office in through the front door, which carries with it a powerful symbolic message about the extent to which disability arts has failed in maintaining its relevance in the increasingly competitive climate of recent years as Arts funding becomes ever more difficult to procure.
Later during the Congress, Sir Peter Bazalgette Chair of Arts Council England gave an impassioned speech describing his sense of the value of disability arts within the context of diversity as a whole: “all forms of non-conformity are precious… for relevance and freshness of the arts”. He further advocated that the most potent arguments we can make are “by producing life-affirming art that carries important messages widely”. He implored disabled and deaf artists to apply for Arts Council funding, recognising the importance of our contribution and the will within Arts Council to fund work that advocates for social justice.
Our Art is so directly connected to our lived experience of a disabling society. And that is what makes it excellent. As Chris Smit, Director of DisArt Festival, Michigan succinctly put it; disability arts is a dialogue between personal experience and public expectation. As a global society we live within a cultural context where “we have been socialized to fear physical and mental difference. Disability is all too often painted with cultural representations in film, television and art, enshrouding us in “…mystery, pity, and confusion”.
And so it was disappointing and worrying that despite a strong presence at the Congress of representatives from Arts Council England that none of the local Liverpool-based National Portfolio Organisations were present. And only a smattering of mainstream venues and organisations were in attendance.
And this despite the strong presence of British Council. Carole McFadden laid out the organisations’ strong agenda to support disability arts internationally. Having taken work from Unlimited to Brazil and Bahrain in 2013, they are now committed to a major disability arts festival in Qatar in March 2015. She encouraged disabled artists to apply for a further showcase next August and to submit details of work to their Disability Arts International website.
There were a host of presentations I could write about further here, but I think the talk that left the most indelible mark on me came from US Black writer and performer Leroy Moore, creator of Krip-Hop Nation and cofounder of Sins Invalid. He talked about ‘intersectionality’ and the need for disability culture and disability politics to widen its frame of reference to reach out beyond the narrow framework of ‘I’ to embrace ‘we’.
Krip-Hop’s agenda is firmly rooted in social justice within a family of artists across the globe. His was a clear and passionate call for us to work together, to be critical in a bid for social change globally in recognising the human rights of disabled people.