Celebrating 35 years of Graeae Theatre, prominent figures from its history were paired with artists and illustrators from the Central Illustration Agency to create 40 new artworks. Kate Lovell visited the Reframing the Myth at the Guardian’s offices in London, wishing that it had shouted louder and been bolder.
A big Beckettian mouth jumps out of the back wall, the comic-red lips a playful nod to the Rolling Stones’ poking tongue, with the final flourish a neon-lit frame around the lips. This is Sarah Pope’s work to represent Jenny Sealey, Graeae’s artistic director since 1997, and feels fitting.
The strength of Sealey’s voice in the arts world is represented, raw and loud, along with a nod to her life of lip reading and the vibrant energy of Graeae’s output. But the mouth suspended in space also conjures a sense of disabled people’s voices sometimes lost amidst the darker times of governmental attack on those it deems less valuable.
Beyond the gratifying smacker of the lips, it is disappointing to discover much of this exhibition is hidden behind an escalator, including patron Peter Blake’s underwhelming animation, chattering quietly and with little to say. Disabled people sidelined and shoved in a backroom where they belong? The irony isn’t lost on me.
A row of uniform, two-dimensional poster-art images make up all but five or six artworks given the space to break this repetitive A3 swathe. These are illustrations co-commissioned by the Central Illustration Agency and Graeae Theatre.
Artists who have worked with Graeae were paired with an illustrator for a conversation which would culminate in the creation of an artwork to be placed in the exhibition, which is designed to document the creative achievements of those connected to the disability-led theatre company.
A few of the illustrations forcibly represent Graeae’s role within the fight disability arts has undertaken. An exploded image of Barbara Lisicki readying herself for a Direct Action protest, armed with her ‘Piss on pity’ t-shirt and handcuffs is drawn as a pleasing mock how-to of disabled dissent.
A wheelchair hanging by a noose looming above a microphone knocked to the floor, drawn in dread greys and blacks, represents actor John Kelly’s activism against the closure of the Independent Living Fund.
It’s apparent that some of the visual artists knew their subjects well: a five-foot tall canvas depicting the actress Nicki Wildin in mixed-media is textured, colourful and full of her personality and achievements, all credit to Rachel Gadsden for busting out of the brief and getting away with it.
Others seem to have little connection to their subject with some interpretations utterly bizarre. A vivid self-portrait in words by Robin Bray Hurran as a “short and furry Londoner…shabby around the edges…trans, queer and disabled” is visually translated into terribly dull black lettering on beige.
I long to see the work of a camera, collage, clay. I want real dynamism to tell the history of a company that has achieved so much through the individuals who express such energy but are left imprisoned by A3 conformity. Let us document the diversity of Graeae as a figurehead of disability arts with an exhibition that screams aloud with art as challenging and exciting as the theatre the company has given us, in a space that enables it to flourish. Back to the drawing board – or not – please.