Ashokkumar D Mistry writes at length about curation of visual arts exhibitions and the processes that exclude disabled artists – specifically those with invisible impairments – from applying from opportunities to show work.
To say or not to say that one has an invisible disability is a great dilemma and as the arts increasingly become time poor and first impressions count, things are getting progressively worse for people who’s access needs are not obvious. I speak in particular about artists who are neurologically diverse, or have impairments that are not obvious and struggle to engage with galleries in a meaningful way, build relationships and get booked, commissioned or exhibited. Please note, although I’ve mainly mentioned my own experiences in this document, I have spoken to a number of other artists who also have had similar experiences.
During this past year few years I have finally been tackling the prickly issue of the dyslexia that I’ve been living with for over 40 years. Since I can remember, I have tried to just fit in and find strategies to hide my being dyslexic as it was never properly diagnosed. I tried playing to the mainstream model of what an artist is, how they work and how their work should be described on paper. I could see the tight and at times fascist curatorial vision of galleries and tried to conform. However, I have finally come to an impasse where mind cannot, any longer cope with the strains of a linear world.
Something needs to give.
In the Royal College of Art’s 2015 exploration of how the neurological conditions affect its student cohort ‘Rebalancing Dyslexia and Creativity at the RCA’ they found that 29% of students identified themselves as dyslexic. However this did not talk about people identifying as autistic, dyspraxic, dyscalculic or many other neurological conditions. So, the question is, what percentage of people would consider themselves as neurodiverse and how has their condition affected their creative practice for better or worse.
Dyslexia has been a great boon as, it allows me to re-order and see the world in a unique way. I’ve been able to imagine situations and problems from a multi-dimensional perspective. Also, with an insatiable need to understand the working of things, I’ve been able to alter seemingly closed processes to create new creative outcomes. I have been able to achieve a great deal in my career so far when I have received support or when programmers, curators and organisations have engaged in conversation.
With help from my younger sister, I studied a Postgraduate Certificate in Further Adult and Higher Education and after drove and flew in all directions from the navel of Britain to work on a multitude of projects, commissions and exhibitions. With support from organisations such as Charnwood Arts and British Council, my career has taken me as far as Taiwan (twice) and Portugal to undertake commissions/exhibitions, develop performances through international collaboration and talk about the the concept of the performative system.
However, coupled with a number of other sight and memory problems dyslexia has at times made my life more than just difficult to deal with. One of the greatest challenges has always been to get people to understand that dyslexia is not just about bad spelling, bad handwriting or not being able to read a page clearly, but instead it goes to the core of one’s mental functioning. You think differently and therefore understand in a different, more kaleidoscopic way. The only way I can describe my way of seeing the world is in the form of a poem (see below). My symptoms of dyslexia are different to other people and therefore one size fits all strategies do not support how I interface with the outside world.
An example of how dyslexia has affected me from an early age is when, at the age of 7, I wanted to spell the word ‘together’, but could not remember how to assemble this sandwich of syllables in the correct order. I thought the word ‘to’ had been blended with another word ‘gether’ to form together. This conversation of wordplay had already started in my head so, I approached my teacher and asked her to spell ‘gether’. She looked at me as if I had just cursed her in my mother tongue. Then, with neither request for reiteration or an explanation, I was asked to stand in a corner until I could work out what I was trying to say. After this episode I just avoided asking for help. This was one of many episodes where other people’s reactions to dyslexic traits cased a derailing of mutual understanding.
How does this relate to building relationships with galleries, I hear you say. In the early part of my career as an artist, I started contacting galleries and would get no reply. My problem was that I had no reference point for what the galleries were looking for. All I wanted was some curatorial support. Someone to help me understand my work and yet, I was made to feel like an eternal interloper. A trespasser in a middle class world I could never be a part of.
I didn’t (and still to a point don’t) understand what the galleries wanted me to say, in what format they want information or what it was that was missing. Many galleries still refuse to offer any feedback, so, simple mistakes become cyclical. I didn’t understand ‘art speak’ and I found it difficult to align my thinking with what the galleries were asking for. After a time I found myself submitting less and less proposals and after a few bad experiences with one particular gallery, I gave up altogether.
I was also making many simple spelling and grammatical mistakes, which I could not see myself. However, what was worse, was that I was drifting away from galleries because of simple misunderstandings. As deadlines for projects or exhibition submissions neared the text would swirl into a jumble of knots.
It was extremely dejecting to get no reply and while I understand that It is difficult for curators and exhibition officers to reply to all submissions, however, I take issue with the fact that much of the weight in terms of quality was attributed to the presentation, spelling and grammar in the document they expected you to submit. Also, my portfolio was not (and still is not) consistent (or as one particular curator put it, “it looked schizophrenic”). I prefer the term ‘multifarious’, however, how I saw the world was different and the galleries didn’t want to understand it.
My practice as I see it, is not unlike a web of strands that radiate in different directions, across a continuum of artforms (including, painting, drawing, digital media, video, performance and writing), connecting in counterintuitive ways. An example is the way I create moving image artworks. I tend to start with verse that acts as a stencil to build the visuals and sound but, does not feature in the finished artwork.
I do create work that explores issues that affect me such as race and disability. Conversely, I also create work that has no connection to race or disability. However, in terms of value, the work that overtly references race or disability is what is used to define me. I define my work as an exploration of the unending human need to understand a milieu. Some curators and programmers are more preoccupied with other, more obvious traits of mine, that make me different and fail to see the core themes I am exploring. The exotic backstory in their mind becomes all-consuming and here the conversation breaks down.
The few times I have had the chance to speak to curators but not mentioned that I’m dyslexic, I’ve found that some people miscorrolate dyslexic traits with laziness or ineptitude. Also, some of the bodies of artworks I make are created over a few years and their creation sits in parallel to other bodies of work. I will work on something, leave it for some months or years whilst I work on other ideas and return to it later. For the galleries, this means mixed messages or things are unfinished.
Conversely, when I have mentioned that I am dyslexic I’m either reminded that there is no extra help and it’s basically tough luck or, the conversation turns into a fixation with the disability and the artwork I’ve created gets ignored. They want to use the label of disabled or dyslexic artist and although I identify with dyslexic, labels are really not my thing. I’ve also been in situations where I’ve been told that I’m using my disability as an excuse for failure. There is an assumption that asking for help to enable me to compete for a show or residency on a level playing field is an excuse of ineptitude… so, the dilemma stands – to say or not to say?
In the early 2000’s Arts Council England funded the National Decibel Award which was run as a competition to find and support the ‘best’ black and minority ethnic artists. Many of the regional offices also offered such awards in their regions. The scheme was intended as a way of shining a light on the best talent and bringing them to the fore. However, as a minority of successful artists basked in the spotlight of the scheme, the institutional structures and barriers could not be seen to have changed, leaving the majority of artists left to feel that they were were bystanders. Amongst them, were artists who are neuro-diverse and without support could not access the award because they found it too difficult to align their thoughts with the confines of the application process.
When it comes to submitting applications for funding, residencies or projects, most organisations only accept online applications or an offline form that needs to be filled and emailed back. The forms (both online and offline) often come with inadequate notes and no help is offered to complete them. Some organisations do accept audio or video applications but still do not offer guaranteed interviews for disabled artists. And so the problem persists, if the panel assessing applications don’t understand the application they are not willing to ask for clarification or speak to the applicant about any specific problems they may have had with the applications.
Many arts organisations do not accept open submissions and the only way of getting on their radars is through open exhibitions which, use one size fits all online applications. When one approaches an art centre, they are usually shot down by the excuse that they ‘work three to four years ahead’ and in many cases curators/programmers have not taken the time to look at the work in any detail. This is proven time and time again when I have looked at the activity statistics for my website. The system logs all links visited day by day and looking at the timeframe of a given application, the majority of times the links provided have not been viewed.
First impressions count and much of the application is based on existing profile. If an artist has problems with developing their profile due to their disability it has a serious effect on how much respect they are given by galleries and this includes diversity and even disability-led institutions. I have been in situations where, I can have a great conversation with the CEO of a gallery, but the curators don’t even want to make eye contact, as if to say, that I or my work does not fit their gaze and so, I am left feeling like an interloper.
Advice given by arts organisations suggests that artists need to build a ‘relationship’ with the organisation, but what does that mean for artists who find social situations difficult? For many dyslexic, dyspraxic and autistic artists and artists that suffer from PTSD this is a particular problem.
For many artists, life has become a Darwinian nightmare where success depended not on their ability but on how organised they were in completing the forms or their social skills. I have heard many disparaging remarks about artists who cannot fit the mould of the driven artist and I have also fallen foul of comments made about myself. Lazy, unendearing, defeatist clumsy, schizophrenic, these are just a few of the comments that have been leveled at me for one reason or another because people did not bother asking why an idea concept or paragraph did not fit with their understanding.
There are a whole host of measures that can be adopted to allow a greater equality of opportunity from the way online submission portals are designed to the notes and support people are offered to complete submissions. However, I feel it is just as important to explore how arts organisations come across new artists, how they are welcomed and how the artists are allowed to communicate their ideas and explain their work.
Many of the people I have spoken to who are neuro-diverse, found it difficult to present their thoughts in a stark paragraph and needed a verbal conversation. Also, some people mentioned that ideally, conversations with galleries worked best when they were brokered by a support agency that specialised in arts and disability. This support helped them to organise their thoughts and helped them gain purchase on the situation.
Through this conversation, my intention is to open a dialogue with curators, producers, writers, programmers, exhibition officers and anyone else who is willing to listen. I would like to use this opportunity to explore new ways for artists with invisible disabilities to be supported in preparing for how they communicate with galleries and to find mechanisms that allow them to meaningfully engage with galleries without feeling ‘initiative-ised’.
I have worked with a few great independent curators and organisations who cared about my work and supported creative vision. With these individuals and organisations, I have developed new artworks and exhibitions through conversations that bring out otherwise unseen qualities in my work and allow me to be understood by audiences. These individuals are in the minority however, their methodologies offer great insights for how we can make the arts more compassionate.
Early in 2018, I was invited by G. Sian (part of the Change Maker programme run by Arts Council England) to deliver a two-day participatory live art experience called The Birth of Understanding as part of a programme of events titled the DeStress Fest at Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. The programme sought to explore art from a mental and physical health perspective.
Many of the artists involved were either neurodiverse or lived with mental health issues and was delivered to a very high quality. However, in order to curate the programme G used conversation and cooperation rather than form filling or competitive coercion and in doing so, he enabled people to show compelling new work that would otherwise not have seen the light of day.
The solution to these issues is not about finding a few neuro-diverse artists and having a group show in isolation – instead, this conversation seeks to find long-term solutions and best practices in order to make the artworld more equitable and allow the career trajectories of disabled artists, indivisible from any other.
The following is a series of departure points around which we can start to form a conversation, with a view to making the arts truly inclusive and drive contemporary culture forward:
- Consider that misunderstandings can be the roots of new cultural branches.
- Discuss with the artist which labels they are truly comfortable with.
- Move away from the “we programme three years in advance” excuse/approach and build in programming elasticity.
- Question your prejudices and unconscious biases when we consider work that at first glance does not fit the mould.
- Build support into an online application.
- Look for strategies to see beyond the bad spelling and grammar and see the essence of a proposal or application.
- Offer a chance for dialogue when there is something in an application we do not understand.
- Offer guaranteed interviews for artists that identify as disabled or being neurodiverse.
- Look for regional strategies to open up to open submissions.
- Look for ways to develop opportunities to exhibit or perform through an open-ended conversation rather than an opaque application process.
- Give artists information about what is required to develop an exhibition or show from a body of work coupled with curatorial support.
- Map routes of progression for artists generally and from diverse groups who face barriers.
- Understand why people from diverse groups drop out of the arts.
- Take risks with programming and exhibiting such as juxtaposing the work of unknown artists with more established artists.
I would like to hear from other artists and curators about their experiences and to invite people to come together to discuss these issues of access. If you would like to be part of this conversation, please contact me through the comments section or via twitter @ashokdmistry.
being me is like..
standing so close to the trees
that all you see is a stave of branches
upon which sit birds and leaves that define the tempo of the moment
try as you will but
your gaze will never feel the need to retreat far enough
to feast on the structure of that forest
being able to see other ways is like….
reading the unseen
(or as it’s called ‘misreading’)
from the middle
the end or any other unintended point or facet
which, bleeds forth colours otherwise unseen
into newly zeitgeisty ways of believing
being able to think without walls is like….
and looking in at the clamour
the great hubbub and hubris
within the angular confines of simplicity
life is more than four walls
or being adorned with a chandelier
being free to be different is like…
all of the things ignored or overlooked from being imagined
and for those who know not how it feels to read the world as a song
Listen for details
whispered in every misreading
and each error of understanding
here you will find
an abundance of misapprehended branches
ready to be grasped