Black Robin on his journey documenting disability arts in the North East

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Black Robin is a photographer, filmmaker and arts practitioner who has captured the North East’s disability arts scene for many years. He shared with Katharine Goda the inspiration and frustrations of working to give under-represented groups a voice

What immediately strikes me is the language Black Robin uses when talking about his feelings about the background to his work within disability arts: ‘celebrate’, ‘support’, ‘champion’, ‘community’, ‘expression’, ‘passion’, ‘three-dimensional’, ‘world-class’, ‘unique’, and then ‘invisible’, ‘isolation’, ‘don’t fit the remit’, ‘designed by non-disabled people’, ‘very little benefit’. Black Robin’s work captures and enriches the ‘innovative arts in the margins’ with all its contradictions.

A female singer holds a microphone

Minika Green. Photo © Black Robin

Beginnings
Born out of his determination in the 1990s to find a more creative way of supporting young people to express themselves, he began photographing theatre productions and community arts projects, which led to him being commissioned to make a short 16mm film for a play going to the Edinburgh festival. This was an experiment in the very early days of multi-media theatre, “a challenge which really got under my skin,” prompting him to study film and communications and go on to photograph and film disability arts cabarets.

Attending events with his partner, who has played a hugely influential role in disability arts, he realised that, pre social media and digital cameras, very little was being recorded. This was work that was always innovative, with a real sense of community, but a community that was largely hidden. Celebrating, promoting and championing this across dance, theatre, comedy, exhibition openings and artists at work became a passion, “to give people a voice and to challenge how we are commonly viewed.”

He describes his approach as “a form of social documentary but more importantly… human documentary.” Both he and the groups he collaborates with take the portraits, each of which is accompanied by a statement to ensure individuals are not portrayed purely on the basis of their appearance:

“They may reveal that they love Elvis, eat lots of chocolate ice cream; may talk about how tricky access is, or how they are really supported by their families; they may talk about verbal abuse they receive, or their love of singing karaoke.”

When preparing an exhibition he asks his subjects to reveal a further layer of themselves. Each contributor gifts a significant object and an explanation of why it is important to them. This is crucial both in the experience of gaining agency over representation and in the challenge to expectations, with each person presented three-dimensionally and with empathy.

A woman with a big smile, eyes closed poses against a mirror

Vici-Wreford Sinnott. Photo © Black Robin

What has changed in disability arts?
Black Robin describes a time of hope in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with legislation changing attitudes, and funding for disabled arts forums providing support and a sense of community to disabled artists. He sees the progress as unravelled by the financial crash and finance policies of successive governments.

Now, he says:

“the large-scale funding initiatives of the Arts Council don’t come anywhere near my life as an artist. They feel designed by non-disabled people and don’t reach me, or many of the artists I know from the North East. I think we see very little benefit from that at all up here. Lots of disabled artists continue to make good work but with very little fanfare from arts funders so we remain invisible, if we don’t fit the remit of their funding initiatives.”

What needs to change?
My questions about what it means to be an ’emerging artist’ make him chuckle. He describes the contradiction: emerging suggests he is just beginning and yet he has worked in disability arts for a long time, just with a very low profile.

So what are the main challenges? He mentions the need to earn a living, so fitting his roles in disability arts around other commitments. He also highlights the lack of coherent support in career routes for disabled artists, which leads to a lack of confidence and knowledge about how the arts world works:

“How do people like me move on – I really don’t know. I don’t think it will come from anyone else – I would have to drive it, but don’t really know where to begin”.

He identifies this isolation as a key issue for disabled artists in the North East who need opportunities for support, solidarity and collaboration as well as clear information about funding opportunities other than the apparently dominant model of fundraising for yourself.

“What is needed is more investment in less mainstream arts. There seems to be ‘highbrow’ arts, which gets millions of pounds of investment for certain audiences – very middle class and out of reach for lots of people. Many venues around the country are addressing this, such as ARC in Stockton in terms of making the arts affordable to attend. Unless the arts are taken seriously within education policies, it doesn’t filter out to wider society. The arts are so inaccessible to many people and they don’t see how they fit it into their everyday lives. Working class audiences and artists are not invested in the same way and are less valued.”

He points to recent reports demonstrating the massive contribution of the arts to the economy and firmly believes that the depiction of them as a distraction from ‘real work’ must change.

Headshot of a woman with short spiky hair

Lindsay Carter who sadly died a few years ago. Photo © Black Robin

The North East: ups and downs
Black Robin describes his surprise on arriving in the North East to find that excellence seemed to be brought in from elsewhere, that people “didn’t seem to celebrate, promote and champion artists in the same way that other parts of the country did”, with very little mention in arts reports or mainstream arts websites of work in the North East:

“Why is that? There is amazing, world-class art being made here.”

He mourns the lack of funding opportunities in this area, for both individuals and groups, with innovative arts in the margins remaining in the margins while central funding seems to go to existing large venues. He would love to see a greater commitment to disabled artists, with the mainstream taking responsibility for real representation.

However, he does believe there has been positive change, with more artist-led initiatives and a real hub of disability arts activity around Little Cog, the disabled-led theatre company founded in 2011 by Vici Wreford-Sinnott, who has been an advocate for disability equality in the arts.

He describes the buzz and momentum created by Little Cog:

“the company has led some pioneering activities at ARC Stockton to champion disabled artists and to ensure that the venue welcomes disabled artists and audiences as part of the natural activity of the venue. I don’t think I have ever seen so many pieces of work programmed and led by disabled artists in a mainstream venue. This is absolutely unique, and it is brilliant to see that it is continuing to happen.”

He highlights the partnership between Little Cog and ARC Stockton on the pioneering Cultural Shift project, a model of practice for the cultural disability equality measures which he wants to see across the country.

So we come back to striking language in Black Robin’s description of his work: ‘Powerful’, ‘essential’, ‘revealing’, ‘playful’. What does he value most?

“I love working within my own community – there is a real sense of solidarity. I believe that disabled artists have had to be some of the most innovative of our times – they have had to reinvent artistic processes and forms to be both accessible and relevant to the disability experience. My work documents some amazing artists and events, which would otherwise be invisible. I have a responsibility to bring that work into the public eye, […] to reflect on the heritage we have.”