University of Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre first opened 18 years ago, conceived by acclaimed actor Richard Attenborough as a space explicitly for disabled artists and audience members. 17 November saw the soft launch of its new £1.5 million three-gallery space. To celebrate, the space is hosting a major multi-artist exhibition Art, Life, Activism as its inaugural show. Joe Turnbull was in attendance for the launch event.
Attenborough Arts Centre, though still a little rough around the edges at this launch, is already an impressive space. Galleries 2 and 3 are moderately sized and well proportioned, and were both brim full of excellent work. But the crowning glory was Gallery 1, which had Tony Heaton’s imposing Gold Lamé strung from its double-heighted ceiling.
Art, Life, Activism is a tour de force, featuring the work of renowned artists Tony Heaton, Aaron Williamson, Noëmi Lakmaier, Adam Reynolds, Bobby Baker, Liz Crow, Simon Raven, Ann Whitehurst and David Hevey, all of whom share an acute engagement with disability politics in their work. Taken together, the exhibition is part polemic, part group retrospective on the disability arts movement since the 1980s.
The curation is refreshingly uncomplicated and the message is clear; art and politics are always symbiotic and this is nowhere more apparent than in the interconnected nature of the disability arts movement and the movement for disabled people’s rights. Not only does the exhibition blur the lines between activism and artistic activity, it also presents artefacts of popular protest as pieces of art in their own right – DPAC banners appear alongside virulent video pieces.
So much thought around disability is about the barriers that are put in the way of disabled people. But the work of Tony Heaton speaks to something else as well. His awe-inspiring golden invacar feels both magical and absurd. Heaton reappropriates the objects often associated with disabled people and reimagines them in a transformative, often playful fashion, as if to turn the gaze back on the prejudices of the viewer.
Heaton’s Shaken Not Stirred, a pyramid of charity collection boxes, sits comfortably beside David Hevey’s Cap in Hand, as both undermine the patronising and paternal pretences of charity. Cap in Hand needs no mediation – it delivers a bludgeoning and blunt blow to the head with its stark typeface and powerful photograph of prominent disabled artist Adam Reynolds begging in the street.
Gallery 2 plays host to a trio of video-based pieces, each of them hard-hitting but each with a unique approach. Ann Whitehurst’s Denial is expertly executed. It features the artist slowly moving back and forth from the camera lens, as a disembodied voice probes her with questions: some ridiculous, some self-evident, all of which are based on things Whitehurst has apparently said publicly.
The interrogator’s tone is disparaging throughout, yet the artist – though silent – has her worldview inadvertently extolled via the questions which include gems like: comparing charity to pornography; positioning disability as an emotional and intellectual advantage; suggesting the royal family should become Whitehurst’s helpers so that they can learn from her.
Liz Crow’s Reflections from the Bed feels more like a catalogue of a performance piece, which saw her stay in bed in a public space, surrounded by others for several days. This conflation of public and private spaces reflects the way that benefit sanctions and work capability assessments damagingly force her – and many other disabled people – to collapse their public and private faces, the latter of which is often used to mask the vulnerabilities of the former.
Simon Raven’s A Tip on the Iceberg nods to the Centre’s founder, Richard Attenborough, by taking the credits of his film Cry Freedom which featured the names of those killed during apartheid and replacing the names with those who have died since being found fit for work. The scrolling list is shockingly long and truly gut-wrenching.
Elsewhere, Aaron Williamson plays historical sleight of hand with a curated collection of photographs and other ephemera of the seminal disabled artist Jim Chosen, who Williamson frames as the iconic and archetypal leader that the disability arts/rights movement never had. The collection includes photographs of sloganeering graffiti interventions. Williamson creates a powerful historical narrative that pulls strands of the whole show together.
Art, Life, Activism is a coherent, expansive and brilliant exhibition which draws the parallel between the disabled people’s movement of the late 80s/90s and now. Invoking the spirit of the 90s not only as a call to arms for disabled people enduring the ravages of austerity, but also as cause for hope based on past victories. 20 years on from the Disability Discrimination Act, it’s as good a time as any for reflection.
Speakers at the launch included head of Arts Council England Sir Peter Bazalgette and Richard Attenborough’s son, Michael. The latter delivered a rousing and touching speech drawing on quotes from lost writings of his father to make the case for the importance of the arts in giving marginalised people a voice. It’s quite clear that Attenborough Arts Centre will become one of the most important arts spaces in the region, and hopefully a national bastion for disability arts.