Guest editor, Alexandrina Hemsley interviews artist and Movement For Justice activist Karen Doyle. Working across fine art and political activism, Karen talks about her journey through formal arts education, the urgency of carving out activist spaces and the creativity of protest.
Feeling ‘a bit of a fraud’ in art at secondary school, it was a mental health crisis in Karen’s early twenties which drew her towards formalising her creative practice.
“During one of several hospital admissions I picked up some oil crayons from a pound shop, I discovered all the words I couldn’t let past my lips, all the terrible, unspeakable thoughts and memories could be expressed in other ways – it was a game changer. Art became essential to my survival. But I never thought of myself as an ‘Artist’ and never imagined it could be more than a tool of self-expression for my tortured mind.”
When her mental health improved, Karen started working as a Disability and Mental Health Adviser in a Further Education College where a member of staff supported her in taking the Art foundation course for free. Once at art school, her expectations wrestled with encountering dislocation and exclusion:
“Moving on to a BA in Fine Art was incredible and traumatic at the same time. As a working-class disabled lesbian in an ‘elite’ London art school, I felt deeply out of place. I suppose I was naive, I expected a queer and vibrant explosion of creative minds, provocative, political work and deep thought – I expected 60’s art school rebellion; what I found was mostly stifling, heterosexual, middle/upper-class and career orientated whiteness. I saw spirits crushed and wings clipped, joy being sucked out of art and replaced with mind numbing conformity. I saw working ‘class-ness’, blackness, disability and queerness marginalised and made invisible. I met some incredible, talented, kind, thoughtful and bold students – but the overall atmosphere was painful.”
Making became her ‘refuge’:
“I hungrily digested every skill I could and discovered real joy in bronze casting – something I never would have had the opportunity to do outside of university. I used my third year to explore themes around my body; as a fat woman with a chronic auto-immune disorder I found that despite my size I had physically, emotionally shrunk; I stopped dancing/moving and stayed as still as possible to avoid pain and shame. It was through exploring that, that I took part in the New Empowering School run by Project O, working with incredible artists in movement workshops and running my own “Real Life Drawing” session, a liberating and empowering experience. Seeing myself reflected in the raw, beautiful, powerful movement of SWAGGA choreographed by Project O (2015) and performed by Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt did much to rip off the chains of art school.”
Karen began focusing on “how galleries could go beyond, (at worst) disability as an access ‘problem to be solved’ or (at best) ‘a question of inclusion’”. She looked at:
“…whether disability theory could be embraced as part of enhancing the understanding of art collections in the same way as there has been some notable (if patchy and insufficient) progress in embracing queer and black studies.
Of course the answer is yes, I think there are amazing things happening in disability arts, mainly in the areas of movement, theatre, writing, performance but I’d like to see much more work done by visual arts galleries in embedding and embracing disability theory. All of these themes are expressed in my ongoing creation of ceramic figurines; I take old figurines like those our parents and grandparents had, break and remake them to fit my queer, disabled, gender non-conforming aesthetic.”
At the age of 16, one of Karen’s college peers, Shah Alam, was subjected to a horrific racist attack in East London. This event sparked Karen’s political activism:
“Seeing his attackers walk free from court led to setting up anti-racist, immigrant rights organization Movement for Justice (MFJ). I didn’t get qualifications higher than GCSE because in 1995 I was expelled during my A-levels for throwing paint on the chair of the Conservative Party not long after MFJ was launched. As an Irish immigrant in the 1980’s I had an upfront introduction to injustice and racist bullying. As a lesbian, a sexual abuse survivor, a disabled person, a fat working class woman, as someone with a voracious interest in history, politics and philosophy – I discovered a deep well of creativity and ideas to draw on beyond the pain.
Movement for Justice have become most well known for our work to shut down all detention centres where thousands of people are locked up indefinitely for simply crossing borders without the right piece of paper, for seeking freedom, safety and a future for themselves and their families.”
Karen currently situates her creative practice across visual arts and activism:
“Over the years I’ve discovered that Art (capital A) will never be a ‘career choice’ for me, my priority in life will always be my political activism. I have managed to weave my creativity and my art into my political activism through making the colourful signs and banners MFJ have become well known for. But I don’t consider these make me a Political Artist (Big P) either, my politics is rooted in my soul, entangled with my history, my life, my love – my ‘political’ art is not commentary, its in service of building a movement that can change the system of oppression we live under.
The art I find most interesting doesn’t declare itself as righteously political, its created by artists grappling with themes of oppression and injustice, speaking the truth about their experiences and, creating works that make me feel and think deeply. Having said that, I’m also a kitch queer queen, I get joy from ‘bad taste’, dirty, irreverent, joyful, messy explosions of creativity. That’s why I continue to make my wee queer ceramic figurines – its enough that they simply make me smile. But that’s the joy of art, it can be anything, anyone and anywhere!”
Working in social justice, Karen has experience and insights into thinking about creativity which is different from the standard models of ‘art projects with detainees’
“Creative thinking is something that those who face oppression do as a matter of course, it’s embedded in our DNA. Every hour in detention is like a day, every day like a week, every week like a month and every month like a year. Detainees are battling daily for their freedom and dignity. The real art is in the creativity of resistance.
For example, the T-Shirt protest in YarlsWood which saw women write ‘we are not animals – we want freedom’ on their clothes and bodies, using whatever they could get their hands on from eyeliner to biros to make them. Creativity is in the Harmondsworth detainee who’s lived here since he was a baby who told me how he spread soap, oil, water, cream – anything he could find on the floor so when guards came into his room to take him to a deportation flight they would slip, fall, be unable to reach him. It’s in the handwritten signs saying ‘FREEDOM’ alongside bras and T-shirts held tiny openings in windows when we come to demonstrate at Yarlswood.
There are a million acts of inspiring creative resistance going on behind locked doors and high fences, that’s the art that inspires me every day – the art of people who don’t think themselves ‘artists’.”
In conclusion, Karen reflects on the meaning of rest as a part of her creative practice:
“Living with an autoimmune condition rest is essential, it’s the time when I recharge, centre myself, carve out time to think or just time to Netflix and chill. I made a little garden on my window ledge recently, I was surprised at how much joy it’s brought me, caring for the plants, just looking at it brings me peace. I don’t always have the spoons to do everything I want to do, I’ve had to learn to do what I can when I can. I love taking time to make the protest signs, it’s a deeply relaxing and meditative process for me, it eases my anxiety before big events and demonstrations to take a day and just paint.”