This Summer Heart n Soul, the award-winning creative arts charity for people with learning disabilities, marks 30 years of innovation, creativity and fun with a celebratory series of exhibitions, events and performances in venues and organisations close to its long-time home at the Albany Theatre in Deptford.
The Big 30 is a landmark project documenting thirty Heart n Soul artists, staff, volunteers and participants with and without learning disabilities. Leading photographer Franklyn Rodgers - responsible for Southbank Centre’s Elders project in 2012 and the National Portrait Gallery commissioned Underexposed exhibition controversially removed from a permanent display in Peckham – has captured the very essence of the people and groups who have made a significant contribution to the development of Heart n Soul. The photos are accompanied by recordings of previously unheard stories that explore three decades of learning disability culture through the work of Heart n Soul.
We hear the journeys of people who have transitioned from being confined to day centres with little to do, to performing their own music around the world. Most importantly, these stories are told in their own words. The Big 30 Archive – the first in the UK to show the cultural impact of people with learning disabilities – is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and will be made available to the public through the London Metropolitan Archives and Heart n Soul’s Big 30 website this summer.
The Big 30 Archive will also take the form of a multimedia art installation in Deptford throughout July, where the public will be able to see and hear the stories all around them. The installation will be accompanied by public exhibitions, concerts, talks and performances featuring people with and without learning disabilities.
“The Big 30 Project will let people see what we are: not just people with learning difficulties. We are human beings.”
– Lizzie Emeh, Heart n Soul music artist
“We want to show people what we can do and we want to reach as many people as possible. My whole life I wanted to be a singer and I thought it could never happen. Well, look at me now.”
– Pino Frumiento MBE, Heart n Soul co-founder and singer/songwriter with a learning disability
“People with learning disabilities don’t want to be told what to do. Like everyone else, they want to be listened to. As the world turns upside down and top-down structures and certainties fall away, there is perhaps something to be learnt from people who look at the world differently. In the words of autism activist Zosia Zaks, ‘we need ‘all hands on deck’ – as much diversity as possible – to right the ship of humanity’. Heart n Soul and The Big 30 is all about hearing people as people and it’s really fundamental that this group of people is no longer written out of history.”
– Mark Williams MBE, Chief Executive and co-founder of Heart n Soul
Since setting up in 1987 with a mission to harness the talents and power of people with learning disabilities, now 4,300 people participate and many thousands more are inspired by its innovative and engaging programme of events and activities: from the Allsorts creative arts project for adults and The Squidz Club, a club night for young people with learning disabilities featuring young DJs, bands and artists and a range of taking part activities for young people to get involved in, and the fabled Beautiful Octopus Club.
An organisation that has always thought big and ignored traditional barriers, Heart n Soul has even produced a clutch of renowned performers including touring electro-pop group The Fish Police (their song Chicken Nuggets was recently chosen by comedian Stewart Lee as his Radio 4 ‘Inheritance Track’) singer Lizzie Emeh, the first learning disabled solo artist to release a self-penned album and perform at the London Jazz Festival, and the inimitable Dean Rodney Jr whose visionary project the Dean Rodney Singers has connected with musicians, dancers and singers across the world. Other notable projects include the Tilley and Del comic strip created by Tilley Milburn in collaboration with Ben Connors and the Making Routes projects led by artist Aldean Blair in collaboration with Battersea Arts Centre.
“The thought of us actually making history is very exciting. I think it’s about time our voices were heard. It’s been a long time coming.”
– Lilly Cook, Heart n Soul Trustee and Big 30 interviewer
Heart n Soul has become renowned for its restless spirit of experimentation, especially with regard to its much-lauded SoundLab digital music making project and has even become a testbed partner for experimental music tech companies including Ableton, Novation and Mi.Mu, whose interactive gloves allow the wearer to create music and compositions through movement. Heart n Soul is a resolutely open organisation which thrives on collaboration with partners that range from local organisations such as Deptford’s inspirational community music project Midi Music and The Albany to world-leading organisations including Goldsmiths, University of London, Wellcome Trust, British Museum, London Symphony Orchestra and Southbank Centre – the long time home of the Beautiful Octopus Club. This unique combination of grassroots inspiration and ambitious collaborative projects has positioned Heart n Soul as an unlikely yet inspirational business model for organisations both inside and outside the learning and disabilities sector.
As Co-Founder Mark Williams says:
“Organisations associated with learning disabilities are mostly always referred to in terms of health or education. We have always been more than that. We are not restricted by categories, genres, styles or artforms. We are interested in everything and everybody. As well as being a celebration for everyone involved with Heart n Soul, The Big 30 offers a timely opportunity to consider how far attitudes have changed over the past three decades. Although we have come a long way since the mid 1980s, still far too many of the UK’s 1.5 million people with learning difficulties feel excluded and spend far too much time at home alone. Our hope is that by sharing The Big 30 stories with thousands of people this year and making them available for future generations we will take a significant step closer to changing attitudes towards people with learning disabilities and creating a more open and inclusive world.”