Redbrick’s Culture Critics celebrate artists with disabilities, old and new, in light of Disability Employment Awareness Month this October

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Images by stevepb

Review: Fierce Festival

Every two years, Fierce Festival comes to Birmingham to put on a series of events focused on bringing people together, to celebrate and amplify voices of marginalized people.

I have been to a couple of their events before, so when I decided to see Every Body Electric, I felt like I knew what to expect; something new, interesting, and maybe a little funny. But the performance was so much more than that. It was bold, explosive and dynamic.

From my very first steps into the Midlands Art Center theatre, I knew this event would be unlike anything I’d seen before. As I entered the theatre, a nude woman was lying on the floor, her body trembling as she continuously tried to stand up, only to lose her balance and crash back down to the floor. The crowd whispered among themselves, but I was captivated by her consistent efforts to control her body.

The music swelled as  other performers entered the stage. They rolled onto the stage in wheelchairs before beginning their own pieces of choreography. Their movements were mostly simple and repetitive, unique to each person, but energetic, amplified by the beat of the music. Their energy, the music and the lights made the small, intimate theatre seem huge, completely engaging the audience.

I was spellbound. I felt the name of the performance suggested almost an electrical current to pass from the performers to the audience, which was achieved; we couldn’t help but move to the beat.

It was a performance in its truest sense, with the performers transporting the audience to a world where nothing else exists,  captivating a few hundred people with nothing other than their bodies and wheelchairs. There were no frills to pad the show, it was real, raw and unedited.

It was a performance in its truest sense, with the performers transporting the audience to a world where nothing else exists

The beauty of Doris Uhlich’s choreography was showcased in how she turned complex choreography, into something that looked easy and effortless. Behind the repetitive movements, there were undoubtedly hours of practice to get the timings exactly right. It certainly paid off.

The audience giggled when two of the performers mirrored each other in perfect synchronization, executing a piece where one was chasing the other. Other movements also stood out in their  unqiueness, such as when the performers would get into pairs and just shake the other’s legs. The way they moved rhythmically to the music, rolling at high speeds from the edge of the stage, stopping inches from the audience’s feet, and interacting with each other, was untamed, unfiltered and felt instinctively human.

It is easy to reduce someone to their labels, especially when you can physically see them, but there was something about the choreography that symbolised  everyone’s shared humanity. A lot of the performers had different disabilities, but their humanity was a common thread underlying the whole performance. This was made particuarly apparent when some of the performers began to shed their clothes.

It was not sexual, but rather made the distinction between the person and the machine clearer. It allowed them to stand out as humans, as individuals, their identities no longer linked to their wheelchairs.

Pieces included them suspending a wheelchair high in the air and continuing the performance without it.

There was something about the choreography that symbolised everyone’s shared humanity

In another moment, two performers completely dismantled their wheelchairs, spinning their bodies on the wheel and wearing the seat like a hat. It was clear that their aid were props, not a part of them.

At the end of it all, the applause was thunderous, breaking me out of my trance. I have been to concerts with tens of thousands of people, but there was something about the applause that night that was so powerful, conveying the sense of awe at what we had all experienced.

There is no better way to celebrate Disability Awareness Month than by having your every expectation shattered, every assumption questioned and every  stereotype broken- something which Fierce Festival undoubtedly did.

Fierce Festival will be on-going until the 25th of October.

– Amrita Mande


This Month’s Key Cultural Figures

Vincent Van Gogh: 1853-1880

After a variety of careers, such as  teaching and bookselling, Vincent Van Gogh decided to pursue art full time at the age of 27. In just over a decade, he created over 2,000 artworks from expressive self-portraits, to post-impressionist landscapes.

However, Van Gogh experienced psychotic episodes and delusions, often neglecting his physical health and drinking heavily. He is therefore often thought of as ‘the artist where madness and creativity converge,’ and became famous posthumously.

Henry Matisse: 1869-1954

Matisse was a French artist, primarily known for his paintings but also as a skilled draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. He  was a master of expressing the aesthetic language of colour, displayed in his works that span over half a century.

After helping to define revolutionary developments in visual arts, along with Picasso, Matisse became a leading figure in modern art. Matisse felt his career was re-energised after having cancer surgery, that forced him to use a wheelchair and called the last 14 years of his life his ‘une seconde vie’ (second life).

Chuck Close: 1940-Present

Chuck Close is an American painter and photographer, creating large photorealist portraits of himself and others. Living with prosopagnosia (face blindess), Close has suggested that this is what inspired him to do portraits.

By painting portraits, he is  better able to recognise and remember faces, which is something he otherwise struggles to do. Mastering a range of styles, from inkwork to colour, Close’s work is  immuatble and memorable.

His breakthrough works were a series of photorealistic painted portraits of fellow artists and friends.

– Luca Demetriou


Spotlight on: Judith Scott

Born with Down’s syndrome and becoming blind and deaf within her first few years of life, Judith Scott is a true enigmatic wonder of the world of art; a world conventionally very visually driven. Judith was one of twins, but her sister Joyce escaped the extra chromosome which changed the fate of Judith forever.

Despite the disadvantages on-set from a very early age, Judith displayed a keen and creative way of viewing the world based on sensory feeling and experience as opposed to visual aesthetics.

Her true artistic journey began in April 1987. Scott was granted studio space at the Creative Growth Arts Centre in Oakland, California, one of the very first institutions to offer such opportunities to those with disabilities.

Judith displayed a keen and creative way of viewing the world based on sensory feeling and experience as opposed to visual aesthetics

At the beginning of her time at the centre, Judith had little to no promise, simply sketching scribbles. This didn’t have much of an impression on the centre’s owners and they were seriously considering ending her funding.

Then a miracle happened, something that every artist has experienced; Judith found her original style, and it has shaped her legacy. This happened during a workshop from a visiting artist, Sylvia Seventy, along with her fiber art class. Using the threads and objects at hand, Scott had her creative breakthrough. Thus the textile-based sculpting of Judith Scott was born.

Within the centre’s safe environment, Scott flourished. She began to compile an extensive portfolio and to exhibit across all the states,  even  attracting the artistic field of Europe and beyond. Her sculptures were quite extraordinary, incorporating elements of shape and form never before seen in the American artistic sphere.

Working mainly with textiles, Judith’s distinctive style would usually consist of grabbing interesting and versatile everyday objects which she’d cover in thread, yarn, and other fibers, sometimes spending months on individual pieces.

These tightly wound textile creations have had mixed reviews from contemporary art critics and galleries, who can find it hard to derive sense from them. But you only have to see these untitled sculptures in a gallery space to experience their imposing and purposeful nature.

Her sculpture entitled ‘Twins,’ by her sister Joyce, shows that these are meaningful creations and made with every bit of thought and passion as a painter at their easel.

These tightly wound textile creations have had mixed reviews from contemporary art critics and galleries

Little is known of Scott’s drive to create what she created, the impulse to sculpt in the way she did, and so I can understand the apprehension towards analysing and appreciating Judith’s work.

But surely the very fact that she has been able to create these artworks is representative of her intent. It says so much about her drive and vision as what she did was incredibly patient and skilled work.

Scott was unable to communicate through speech or text, and yet through the unlikely medium of art she was able to say everything and nothing at all. Living with her disability did not hold her back, but instead drove her forward to achieve global recognition for her contributions to sculpture, art and disability awareness, proving that no challenge is too great.

Judith Scott died at the age of 61 in 2005 at her home in California, having outlived her life expectancy by over 50 years. Judith Scott is an inspiration who transcended the boundaries of what it means to live.

She has left behind a legacy which continues to help the visually impaired, the deaf and people with Down’s syndrome. This legacy lives on through her art and the thriving and inspired global community of disabled artists today.

The Creative Growth Arts Centre is still welcoming and supporting disabled lovers of art, and will continue to do so with Judith Scott as an example of the greatness that can be achieved.

– Grace Baxendine

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