Hull UK City of Culture 2017 engages with disability arts practice in a bid to to break barriers


With exhibitions, events, residencies and focus groups, Square Peg at Artlink is giving a diverse group of artists the opportunity to shine during Hull’s year as UK City of Culture 2017.

Black and white photo of the artist standing next to a series of her photographic self-portraits

Artist Anita Corbin at Visible Girls Revisited exhibition. Photo © Jerome Whittingham

What would an arts programme look like from the perspective of disabled artists? That’s what Square Peg sets out to discover, Artlink’s disability and diversity arts programme supported by Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and backed by its Principal Partner, Spirit of 2012.

This year-long programme of exhibitions, interventions and other events is tackling the stigma around disability, revisiting (and building on) Artlink’s roots as an arts centre dedicated to access for all. So far it’s created a host of opportunities, allowing disabled artists to exhibit and promote their work and giving disabled audiences the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Above all else, Square Peg is raising awareness of the barriers that disabled people face. The project aims to bring people together, creating a better understanding of what it is to be from a diverse community.

For audiences as well as artists, accessing the arts can be problematic. Finding out what’s on or applying for opportunities to share your work can become huge barriers, creating a world where disabled artists and audiences are separate from the mainstream. Square Peg is trying to address this imbalance, creating opportunities that are wholly accessible and open specifically to disabled artists.

Rachel Elm, manager of Square Peg, explains that “What we’re trying to do is fulfil that need for disabled artists to have opportunities available to them.”

During the first half of the year Square Peg has produced some first-rate exhibitions like Shape’s Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursay: Shortlist, Oliver MacDonald’s Dog Basket Baboon and Anita Corbin’s Visible Girls: Revisited 

“We want to try and impact the delivery of other arts organisations and hopefully have an impact on the city as a whole,” Rachel says.

The Disability Arts Network, an initiative run by Artlink is feeding into Square Peg, bringing together service users, disability organisations, disabled artists and the wider community to consult on how to make events accessible.

The Square Peg focus group is making this happen too. “This group is identifying what the gaps are locally and where there are access problems,” Rachel explains. “They’re going to try and fill that gap and create their own project.”

What’s emboldening about Square Peg is its commitment to the development of disabled artists, throughout the duration of the project. For some of the artists involved, opportunities to exhibit professionally have been limited in the past; through Square Peg, these artists are being offered invaluable project management skills and exhibition experience that will prepare them for a future working in the industry.

The programme of events for the rest of the year looks set to be daring.

John Walter’s Alien Sex Capsule, a multimedia, multi-sensory and immersive exhibition showing until 29 September is a bold and provocative exploration of the relationship between visual culture and HIV today.

Photo of a series of artworks depicting a mix of abstact art and portraits

Alien Sex Capsule artwork
© Rob Battersby

Hull 2017’s fourth season, Tell the World, kicks off with The Dyslexia Portrait, a photography exhibition by Hull photographic artist Miranda Harr. Featuring former football manager Sam Allardyce, BBC antiques expert Jonty Hearnden and soprano singer Anna Devin, the exhibition explores and challenges our ideas about how people with dyslexia see the world, showcasing their skills, talent and diversity.

Later in the year, Centre of Attention sees the Alternative Limb Project, local film makers Fly Girl and model and diversity advocate Kelly Knox come together to create an exhibition of alternative limbs. The exhibition of film, photography and bespoke prosthetic limbs investigates the relationship between disability and fashion and will be accompanied by a series of artist talks and masterclasses.

Square Peg artist-in-residence Jason Wilsher-Mills will round off his nine-month residency with a solo show in January 2018. A digital artist and painter, he is fascinated with memory – a focus both personal and resonant.

Sepia digital image of a cliff with the sentence: 'It feels like the words are falling off the edge of a cliff'

The Dyslexia Portrait © Miranda Harr 2017

Square Peg is also collaborating with Engage, a leading advocacy and training network for gallery education, to host a conference rethinking diversity at the end of November. The conference will strike at the heart of current debates on equality, diversity and access, with bursaries on offer for those most under-represented in the arts as well as those who might otherwise be unable to afford a place.

And as Rachel knows all too well, these dialogues are crucial. “The disabled and non-disabled communities need to be having these conversations about what we can do, and what we aren’t doing and we need to feel comfortable in having what can be quite difficult conversations sometimes.”

“We’re putting on accessible events in a way we’ve never done before. We use audio description and BSL in ways we’ve never done before – it’s exciting seeing different people coming in. We’re seeing people that maybe haven’t been in an art gallery before, and we’re noticing that people are coming back.”

Debbie Lye, Spirit of 2012 Chief Executive said: “As an organisation committed to championing opportunities for disabled people, Spirit of 2012 is thrilled to be funding Square Peg at Artlink. We’re especially pleased as a principal partner of Hull 2017 to see Square Peg having the space to showcase some great disabled artists and explore their work at the same time as increasing accessibility and challenging people’s perceptions of disability – two areas that Spirit is working hard to improve.”

If you want to get involved, you can – there’s still plenty to see and do with Square Peg. You can join a Disability Arts Network meeting and share your experiences, or ask how you can make your events more accessible. Square Peg’s current exhibition Alien Sex Capsule is on until 29 September. and The Dyslexia Portrait runs from 2 October to 11 November.

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