This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit

Disability Arts Online

> > > Tanya Raabe: Artist on the Edge

Tanya E Raabe: Artist on the Edge


Domesticity by Tanya Raabe

Ann Young gives a personal account of the impact of Tanya Raabe's painting and attitude to life over the course of a long lasting friendship.

It is the early 1980s, Tanya and I stand together on the bare tarmac of Hereward College. Little did we know then, what impact this place was to have on our lives. We were both fresh from the suffocating confines of Special School and we were ready to party with the outside world. It was at Hereward we learnt to believe in ourselves.

Tanya has emerged as one of the most influential and outspoken disabled artists’ of her time. I think our friendship endures because we are cut from the same cloth, Tanya and I. We share a passion for Disability Art, an anger at the negative representation of our rich, yet often over-complicated lives and a humour that can, sometimes, be so cruel in its honesty.

Tanya has always said that anyone can make art, if they can make a mark, they can create art. It’s that straightforward Yorkshire, just-do-it, approach to her work that makes her so alluring. Picking out some of my personal favourites from her vast portfolio, I am also reminded of how complex she is.

Tanya’s bold, uncompromising imagery is edgy yet, her intimate approach reveals a profound understanding of life. Her work explicitly comes from a pride in her identity as a disabled woman but more than this she revels in the everyday, those things that are often in the background of our lives but can be so significant. Domesticity warms me, giving me a sense of strength and comfort in my ability to provide for my own family.

I also love the way Tanya delves into areas of our lives that are chaotic, messy and profound; our relationships with each other and our common human experiences which have so often been over looked or denied to us completely.

Relationships, sexuality, and birth are reccurring themes, reminding society that as disabled people we are human beings and are not immune to the agony and bliss that comes with daring to take control and live our lives. Attempting to Reproduce, makes me smile as I remember the difficulties of trying to ‘get it on’ in my youth and the ingenious lengths we went to. (Shh. I’m not saying anymore!)

Birth reminds me very much of Frida Khalo’s work, an artist who has inspired so many disabled artists. Tanya’s imagery also reminds us of experiences that we know so well but often find difficult to acknowledge.

Attitudes 2 so acutely reflects my own sense of isolation and powerlessness when having to rely on other people. There is also a wicked sense of humour in Tanya’s work, her images cut through the absurdities of mainstream culture’s obsession with rigid ideas of beauty and perfection.

What a lovely bottom!

Oooooooh what a lovely bottom, not only reaffirms our sexuality and desirability as disabled people but also acknowledges the fact that we are able to love ourselves and can sometimes laugh at this crazy world.

Tanya’s most recent project, Who’s Who pays homage to some of the most prominent disabled artists of our time along with some new, emerging artists. Tanya admits that this is the first time she has explored portraiture and I think you will agree that this body of work is a testament to her ability to push the boundaries of her art.

The work responds to a growing anxiety that Disability Culture is losing its way within a society that may value inclusion but isn’t quite there in terms of acknowledging difference. Where do young disabled people learn about Disability Culture and the value of disability art? The artists who made it happen? History shows us how easy it is to disregard disability and the pivotal role it plays in our lives as people, artists and leaders. Yet, as Tanya reminds me, Art Movements come and go; their influence can sometimes be as fragile as shifting sand. But we must remember where we came from and the long journey that lead us to this point in our time.

Who’s Who is not only important to the Disability Arts Movement, its legacy has the power reach into the mainstream and draw people into our world. It should be seen in schools, community centres, libraries and, of course, Tate Modern!

Who's who in Disability Arts?

Oil on canvas

Who’s Who is vibrant with personality and character and this is cleverly reinforced by the multimedia portraits and studio talks which bring the oil paintings alive. It is this multi-dimensional approach that makes this body of work so profound and exciting.

I am drawn to those people in the collection that I know and admire because I recognise them. Listening to the studio talks, I am fascinated by the artist’s own journey into art; their passions and processes; their struggles and ultimate acceptance of who they are. I am also struck by similarities in many of their experiences which reflect both Tanya’s and my own. The 80s and 90s Disability Arts scene created artists who were not afraid to explore disability. Both Mat Fraser and Colin Hambrook talk about seeing other disabled artists and their work, which allowed them to feel positive about their identity. Julie McNamara also talks about the opportunity of performing at Survivor’s Poetry gigs in the early 90s. Back then, artists were empowered to come out, encouraging others to follow and grow strong in their shadows.

Dr Paul Darke and Allan Sutherland emerge from the studio talks and sketches as grand men, in their prime. I love the way Tanya seems to slowly age them from light to dark, dark to light, giving you a sense of those fragile shifting sands. Of the new, emerging artists, Joy Tudor’s passion came across in her almost lyrical delight of combining her love of textiles with her new found digital freedom. Who’s Who is part of the same process of creating strong role models, that began in the 80s.

Tanya’s work leaves a legacy, for new disabled artists to illuminate in their own unique way. So how does an artist follow such a hugely influential body of work? Well, in great Tanya style, she goes large, massive in fact! Intrigued? You will be….

To find out more about Tanya Raabe and Who's Who, the portraits, alongside captioned studio talks go to

Who'S Who - Defining the Faces of an Arts Movement

A collection of portraits created by Tanya Raabe challenging the notion of portraiture using disability aesthetics and visual language. Explore the portraits of established and new emerging disabled artists who have and continue to pioneer disability arts and culture. Including Mat Fraser, Tony Heaton and Julie McNamara.

Exhibition Launch

15 March 2008 - 19 May 2008

Faith House, Holton Lee, Dorset

For more information go to