Katherine Araniello: An obituary for SickBitchCrips, the queen of mischief

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All of us at Disability Arts Online are deeply saddened at the news of the untimely death of performance/video artist and creator of SBC (SickBitchCrips), Katherine Araniello. Katherine leaves behind a legacy of live performance, films and digital art, much made in collaboration with the Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin and the Disabled Avant Garde (in collaboration with Aaron Williamson), not to mention the work she made with support of Unlimited. Obituary by Colin Hambrook

Photo of Katherine Araniello obscured by a large plastic sheet, carrying a megaphone

Katherine Araniello of DAG performs at Awkward Bastards 2

Katherine’s work was shot through with an acerbic satirical wit that took no prisoners. She was a force of nature who first came to notoriety within the disability arts world as Plastic Anorexic, dueting with Sean Donaghey. She performed at various London Disability Arts Forum gigs and workhouse cabarets through the 1990s. I have a very fond memory of her performing Take Me To Your Party in the Victoria Embankment Gardens one sunny Saturday afternoon where her punk aesthetic and arty mess produced a shocked, open-mouthed silence amongst a casual, touristy audience. Magical.

Katherine was determined not to be hide-bound by Disability Arts – and the community arts sensibility that was the bedrock of the movement at that time. She did a BA in Fine Art with Hons at Guildhall University from 1996-99, where she was awarded the Owen Rowley Prize for her final show. Slapping was one of the main works challenging the stereotype of being a victim simply on account of being a disabled person – a theme which she was to revisit often in the course of her artistic career.

From the beginnings of her ventures as a visual artist there was an originality of thought that informed her work and gave it an unparalleled strength. Ironically as Katherine herself tussled with being associated with Disability Arts because of its lack of critical rigour, on a personal level it was the work of artists like her, embedded in life experience, subverting accepted conventions that gave me more of a belief in the power of Disability Arts as a genre.

Disabled Avant Garde

The Disabled Avant Garde: Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson bite the hand that feeds

Katherine often made issue-based work opposing assisted suicide, media representation of disability, prejudice, the hypocrisy of charitable attitudes, ignorance and body aesthetics, amongst other social issues.

Katherine went on to do an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London from 2002-2004 and her career blossomed, finding her niche within Live Art where the sensibilities at the core of her work were appreciated and understood at a critical level within the history of art.

When she met Aaron Williamson in the early 2000s there was a meeting of minds that took their artwork across new boundaries. I recall reviewing the Disabled Avant Garde Today! at the Gasworks in South London in 2006 and being knocked sideways by the eclecticism and inventiveness of the work. DAG delivered an unapologetic ribald commentary on popular culture with art videos that took on subjects as wide-ranging as the Tom and Jerry cartoons and Leigh Bowery.

There were no taboos they were afraid of confronting head on. In 2007 the Disabled Avant Garde made a live art intervention Assisted Passage, parodying disableist attitudes in a performance that saw them collecting charity from the public in order to ostensibly send Katherine to her death at the hands of Dignitas in Switzerland.

Katherine first began blogging on Disability Arts Online in 2012 as SickBitchCrips. She wrote about Closing Down Ceremony – her response to the Paralympics, originally performed as part of Lock Up Performance Art – a series of impromptu events that gave live artists a space to try things out in a garage in East London. Katherine took on the mantle of the Superhuman – a disability stereotype played on by Channel 4 in an attempt to romanticise disability. It was all grist to the mill for Katherine who parodied the hypocrisy of the mainstream representations of disability with anarchic abandon.

Katherine Araniello as a charity collection tin

Katherine Araniello sends up charity

In 2015 Katherine took on Damien Hirst’s cynical Charity – a seven-metre high replica of a 1960s Spastic’s Society charity collection box depicting a disabled young girl clutching a teddy bear and a collection tin. In her inimitable style Katherine parodied the sculpture by dressing as the little girl with a collecting tin that said “Please help SickBitchCrips”.

At the same time as creating a spectacle in the City of London with Simon Raven, DAG took Reverse Mendicants to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – a live performance reflecting on the redistribution of wealth at a moment when disabled people’s economic well-being is being politically ‘reviewed’.

The last time I saw Katherine perform was in the Araniello Show at the Yard, London, in February 2018. You could always expect the unexpected and with sidekicks Daniel Oliver, Jenna Finch and Shona Walnen she took on various personas taking on the hypocrisy that underpins pity politics and smothering it in satire: “Wing disability, drink disability, wear disability, fake disability, snog disability, f**k disability.”

A dishevelled figure, face covered with flour and crumbs sits at a table. A female figure dressed in bondage gear stands to her right.

Katherine Araniello with artist Lady Helena Vortex. Image © Manuel Vason .

In contrast to the force of nature she presented on stage Katherine was a warm, sensitive individual in reality, often concerned about other’s day-to-day dilemmas. Underneath a hard exterior, Katherine was as considerate as she was thoughtful. I recall asking her on several occasions how she was doing, to which she’d reply “I’m busy staying alive”. It gave her a fearless perspective that informed everything that she did.

Goodbye Lady K. We’ll miss your profound profanities.

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