Art and Social Change exhibition @ Midlands Art Centre

It’s been quite a while since I last visited the Midlands Arts Centre. Typically it is a place I go to during the spring and summer months; taking a walk around Canon Hill park before seeing a show or film, or after a thought-provoking exhibition. But, just before this dreadful storm blew in this weekend, I decided to go and see the Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement exhibit, curated by Anna Berry.

Some general information for you all first. The exhibit is free and completely accessible; it is in the Arena Gallery on the ground floor, there is a video with subtitles and signing BSL, as well as this every gallery label has an accompanying braille text. I do not have hearing or sight impairments, so I do not feel able to comment on how useful these are in practice, but this is the most inclusive exhibition I have ever seen. I mean, it makes sense given the subject.

The exhibition has introduced me to so many disabled artists, as well as showcasing some names I already knew. The curator themselves identifies as a disabled person, and this exhibition is a product of their curatorial residency, which is part of a wider, 3-year long programme with DASH, MAC, MIMA, and Wysing Arts Centre to support the development of d/Deaf and disabled curators and artists to address the cultural changes needed in the arts sector to make it more inclusive.

The first piece you’re most likely to come across, and the piece mac have mainly used for their advertisement, is a sculpture by Tony Heaton. Great Britain from a Wheelchair is a strangely sombre piece. Two NHS wheelchairs have been sculpted to create a map of Great Britain (better seen from a slight distance), and the grey mass of metal, plastic, and rubber provokes a nauseous sadness in me. The title of the sculpture is, quite plainly, a pun; it is made from a wheelchair but also the view of this country from a wheelchair is grey and jumbled, clunky and disconnected in parts. Inaccessible? Almost definitely. I’ve never been in a wheelchair for long periods of time, but I do often have mobility issues. It doesn’t take much effort to see that many places in the UK are inaccessible (for a number of different reasons). Although the two wheelchairs used in this sculpture have been broken down and remodeled to create this island, every wheel is still intact and retain their shape. To me, it seems to speak volumes about how society has been built to exclude those who have mobility aids. Those places that only have stairs, and make no effort to create alternatives. I’m grateful that the MAC have made their spaces as accessible as possible. It takes away a lot of stress.

A sculpture using pieces from two grey NHS wheelchairs to build a map of Great Britain
Tony Heaton OBE, Great Britain from a Wheelchair (img cr. MAC)

The other stand-out piece for me is the collection of portraits by Tanya Raabe-Webber, a mixture of digital prints, collage, and acrylic paint used to depict various ideas and experiences to do with identity, the disabled self, gender, and the nude. Backbone, a digital print and the first listed in the group, is described by Raabe-Webber as “a metaphor for my cultural heritage and perspective as a Disabled Artist. [Crutches] are a constant in my life and are part of my body, my art, and my identity.” Another portrait by the artist, Fruits of the Love, is a response to “myths that surrounded Disability identity, physical beauty, birth and sexuality that were present in the media in the 1990’s.” In this collage we see a shapely figure in mismatched heels, pregnant with what seems to be a cherub, comically large tits, a long and winding neck, and supported by one of those uncomfortable, old hospital crutches. (I want to take a moment now to remind you all that I do not have any sort of formal art background or education, I don’t really know what I’m talking about.) This portrait seems to be a mocking of the assumption that disability and beauty cannot be synonymous, whilst also using the uncanny to make any viewer question just what they’re looking at. The piece pokes the viewer in the side and asks ‘is this funny?’ If it is, then why? Is it the exaggerated characteristics that are considered ‘beautiful’? The big tits, curvy waist, stiletto heels, a long and slender neck, the ‘marvel’ of pregnancy? Or is the comedy in the fact that these are on a disabled person? If you think the latter, why? Beauty is subjective and I take that as a fact, but the imposed standards and expectations are still a horrible pressure in society. So, from what I see in this piece, it is a disabled body rebelling against these ridiculous ideals. We see it plenty from abled-bodied comedians and social media influencers, where they exaggerate features or trends to the comically extreme in order to highlight the ridiculousness of these standards. But why is it different on a disabled body? Or is there no difference? I think the latter would be true if we lived in an ideal world. This collection of portraits highlights that all bodies are beautiful and important. Disabled bodies aren’t beautiful ‘despite’ their disabilities or impairments, we aren’t here for your inspiration-porn.

A photo of the gallery wall showing 8 collages against white backing with black frames. The image I discuss is the bottom right portrait.
A collection of portraits by Tanya Raabe-Webber, comprised of a mixture of digital prints and collage (img cr. MAC)

Whether you identify as disabled or not, this exhibition is a must-see. It takes you through the history of disabled identities in the art world, and further. It’s running until 22nd March and is free & fully accessible.

There is also an exciting conference happening on 11th March – I’d recommend going to it if you can! Details are here.

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