Ilham (inspiration) was originally exhibited at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, as part of the Definitely Able conference that explored issues of disability and equal access to arts and culture in the Middle East. A sample of work by the four UK-based artists from that show is on exhibition at Shape Gallery in Stratford until 30th November. Review by Colin Hambrook
A film that accompanies Ilham begins by pointing out that the world and the society we live in is designed for people without impairments. In context the word ‘inspiration’ as the title for the exhibition implies a struggle against the odds without choice and without a voice: disabled by society.
The works on show in the Shape gallery exhibition by Jason Wilsher-Mills, Rachel Gadsden, Juan delGado and Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings are rich with a range of narratives.
For delGado the theme of water connects with the timelessness of Islamic patterning. The object he’s chosen to make work in response to is a 16th-century silk velvet brocade from Turkey. The artist has made himself central to the digital video artwork he’s created showing delGado dipping his hands into water and bringing it up to his face. The patterns the water creates cleverly recalls the cintamani motif and connects us with a rich cultural history.
Likewise, Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings series of screen prints on velvet and silk mirror Arabic text in way that lends itself to ripples in water. Her intricate and delicate patterns reflect origins in craft – a fusion of eastern and western influences brought about through layering pattern and colour.
In contrast the works of Jason Wilsher-Mills and Rachel Gadsen have a more obviously personal narrative running through them. Gadsden reflects on a 12th-century Fatimid lusterware bowl from Egypt to connect with her childhood growing up in the Middle East, meditating on the strength of women. The heat of the desert landscape shines through the painting Precious with the application of gold leaf – a medium that is a recurring theme within Gadsden’s work. A number of silver tags with relief text: ‘light’, ‘begin’ ‘desert’, ’dare, ‘sit’ sparkle like commands sewn randomly into the canvas.
Wilsher-Mills’s digital painting created on an iPad and inspired by a 17th-century Iranian portrait of a European gentleman was made in response to digital images as the artist couldn’t travel to Doha due to ill-health. Looking East From the Other Western Gentleman – a large painting of a spectacularly colourfully clothed disabled man strewn with motifs of butterflies and moths mimics the colour in the original, whilst reflecting the shift in cultural identity.
Seeing this fragment of a much fuller exhibition curated by the British Council and Shape Arts (seven artists in total and four from other countries were invited to take part in the Qatari exhibition alongside works of Qatar-based artists) makes one wonder about the impact of disability arts in a wider cultural context.
Inspiration is one of those words frequently attributed to disabled people that it is understood by the disability arts community in the UK as cringe-worthy. How often are we told that our mere presence in the world is an ‘inspiration’ or that we are ‘inspirational’ for doing or achieving the most mundane of acts.
The exhibition subtly reflects another kind of struggle happening for disabled people. The exhibition doesn’t provide a gauge for how change may or may not come about, but implies that a wider global recognition of the rights of disabled people in the battle for inclusion is happening.
Ilham was curated by Ben Fredericks (Shape Arts) and Khalifa Al Obaidly (Msheireb Arts Centre), with support from the British Council, and sponsorship from SASOL.