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In a guest editorial Denis Joe asks 'Whither Disability Arts?'

When I was in junior school I remember we were reading David Copperfield and the teacher used to break off from the reading to tell us something about Charles Dickens. I hated those diversions. I wasn’t interested in Dickens only in what he produced.

To this day I still find it irritating that people feel the need to tell me about the man/woman behind the work as if this has any bearing on the end result. But I came to realise that this wasn’t merely a preference on my part. Whilst I accept that an artist’s life and views inform a work of art, I find it unacceptable that the life of the artist explains the work. It negates the fundamental aspect that art, as a discourse, relies on for its effect. That is the role of the audience. It stops us from giving our own interpretation and instead suggests that we view the work from the artist’s intent. In other words our role as an audience is reduced to passive acceptance, when we really should be engaging with a work. Trying to understand it

This becomes more problematic when we look at the art of identity. Identity politics really took off in the 1960s and 1970s. Black groups, women’s groups and gay groups used art as a means of propagating their demands for equality. So too did disability groups.

To some extent other ‘marginalised’ groups have managed to blend in with the ‘mainstream’ over the decades. Yet many Disability artists see themselves outside the mainstream. Some seem happy with this [1] even seeing it as a virtue. [2] Others feel the need to get Disability arts into the mainstream. [3] Yet to some extent Disability Arts still remains in the ghetto. The Edward Lear Foundation have this to say: “The primary audience of disability arts is other disabled people” and Lambeth Council promotes “access to the arts by disabled people as audience and participants”. In other words Disability Artists appear to be preaching to the converted.

But is it important that we, as an audience should understand the life of the disabled artist in order to appreciate the work?

As an audience we need to interpret a work in order to fulfil our role. But we do not do this from the standpoint of the artist but from our own understanding and experience:

“We can think of interpretations as having two poles, one personal and individual, and the other communal and shared. A satisfactory interpretation is located in both pole but may lean more strongly toward one pole than the other. A personal interpretation is one that I have formulated for myself after careful thought and reflection. It is an interpretation that has meaning to me.” [4]

Few of us would attribute Vincent van Gogh’s assumed depression to the desolation of An Artist’s Bedroom. We might see material poverty, or just intimacy. What difference does it make to the work of Alice Schonfeld, for example, that she has diminished capacity resulting from multiple strokes? Does it make her sculptures any more awe inspiring than they already are?

Though artists with disabilities may find inspiration in the lives of Schonfeld or even the Cubist Maria Blanchard, the Surrealist Edward Hurra or Matisse, for the audience the inspiration comes from the work itself.

I am not convinced that disabled artists cannot move out of their comfort zone or are discriminated against by the mainstream. The Niet Normaal: Difference on Display exhibition in July 2012, in Liverpool was packed with mainstream audiences. The artist Katherine Araniello, reported that at an exhibition for Access All Areas “the venue filled up with artists, curators and critics from the mainstream contemporary art scene...” [5]

So is there any future for Disability Arts? Do Disability Arts have anything to offer the wider community? I think it does. Like many historical art ‘movements’ Disability Arts provide us with a unique perspective, potentially a fresh evaluation. It is here that I feel that Disability Arts can make their greater contribution. If we understand that the material for an artwork is the experience, creativity and vision of the artist, then we can see that Disability Art has much to offer an art world that is becoming increasingly tired.

For me Katherine Araniello sums up this approach when she says:

“I am not interested in regurgitating lame stories from direct experiences in which I have found myself in humiliating situations as a result of being physically different, that is, in a wheelchair. It is repetitive listening to people’s negative experiences about disability – it does not boost my morale and only serves to pigeonhole difference and place disability even deeper into a box. But negative experiences can generate a fantastic archive of material and, when regurgitated through art, serve as a catalyst for me to produce work that destabilises the way in which we think about and perceive physical difference.” [ibid]

1. See 'The last remaining avant-garde movement', Melvyn Bragg, The Guardian, Tuesday 11 December 2007.
2. See ‘On Our Terms’ Women’s Art, No.47, July/August 1992
3. This statement on the intention of the DaDaFest in Liverpool, for example: “DadaFest is not about doing nice things for disabled people. The politics behind it have been to get disability arts into the mainstream.“ Disability Now
4. ‘Interpreting Art: Building Communal and Individual Understanding’, Terry Barrett,  Contemporary Issue In Art Education. Gaudelius and Speirs (eds). Prentice Hall, 2002
5. ‘Difference is What Makes Cutting-edge Art’, Katherine Araniello, Access All Areas: Live Art and Disability. Lois Keidan and CJ Mitchell (Eds.)
6. ibid

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 28 January 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 25 April 2016

A guest editorial from Q.S Is in response to Colin Hambrook's article on medication and mental health

I read your DAO editorial Colin and found it very illuminating. I'm personally, not an advocate of medication either. Actually, I've been asked to write a book by an organisation called KAOS, based in Brussels, which will include essays detailing my own personal strategies and methodologies to deal with issues of the mind, along with accompanying artwork. I have no proof, but I think making art and writing helped me recover from psychosis and stopped a recurrence of episodes.

I think the main demon remains society, the people within it who judge you for having a ‘different sort of brain.’  I am working with an interesting psychiatrist, Dr Erik Thys, who is neither for nor against medication. He's also a practicing artist and musician!

What I did notice, working with people diagnosed with 'schizophrenia', on my latest scroll project was that they seemed 'changed' on long term medication. They had a certain manner and way of talking and moving, the physiological effects were self-evident, but they remained wonderful open people. I would go as far to say that all of us who have experienced psychosis were ‘naked in the room’ not literally, but psychologically. Psychosis strips the mortal bare of everything. They also found working on the scroll to be immensely beneficial to them mentally.

Interestingly, most people have no idea that I have ‘mental health’ issues. Oh how I hate that term. Nor do they have any inkling that I have experienced ‘multiple psychotic episodes’ - oh I how I loathe that expression too. The problem with both these terms is that they are extremely loaded with erroneous stereotypes and any admission of either is tantamount to professional or social suicide (tacit or overt), which is why people remain silent and then break down behind closed doors or end up exploding mentally and causing a wave of destruction personally or otherwise.

I would argue, in my case, that my brain is just fine, it’s a curious, probing mind, and society has slowly pricked it leaving tiny lacerations that have not properly healed and psychosis was probably one too many lacerations that created cracks tantamount to an earthquake. This is a better description of what has happened inside my head. How can we assume that pills can erase the devastation caused by a brain earthquake. It is ludicrous?

I really appreciate your drawings. Tracey Emin once referred to my drawings as Brain Drawings and I think yours fit that description too. I’ve been examining them very closely, studying the details and there are so many parallels with my own style of drawing, the maniacal attention to detail the recurrence of certain mark making. I found the same visual parallels with the work of the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, which makes me wonder if psychosis unlocks certain creative doors in the mind that are closed off to others. It is the same with the poems; the visual motifs that recur within them are very familiar.

There is an intensity in your/our work that can only come from experiencing psychosis, and the mark making serves as an alternative form of medication, by distracting the mind, by using the hands, by creating something on a piece of blank whiteness and transferring the memories that continue to haunt and refuse to budge.

Coming through the other side of psychosis can be lonely, some people don’t come ‘back’ but if you do return to the ‘real world’ it can seem more hostile and unforgiving than before. Psychosis is traumatic and unless you have experienced it, no one can begin to fathom what you have been through, you try to explain it, but each person’s experience is unique because psychosis transports you to a parallel universe where you reign supreme and everything is heightened. I see those details in your poems, but the experience remains unique to you, just as mine is unique to me and it’s hard for other people to access such an alien world.

I think there are parallels in what we are both trying to do and there are not many people on the same page, not many people who want to go there. You are brave by putting your poems online, by putting your mind out there and not feeling ashamed of what you have been through. I hope one day to find the same courage.

It's a relief though to know that 'you are not alone.'

The problem is no one wants to talk about psychosis properly. In certain programmes I have listened to on the radio it's dealt with superficially (my personal opinion) or as something novel/intriguing/freakish/voyeuristic, perhaps it is just not possible to distill the experience without alienating the listener with all the immense detail and nuances.

Psychosis is tantamount to a complex painting that you can’t fathom in one sitting. It takes years to penetrate the layers and work out the very first brush stroke of a painting that has no form and yet encompasses the universe that all our minds are capable of being.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 January 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 2 June 2015