Portraits Untold and friendships unbroken


Ann Young watched the livestream of Tanya Raabe-Webber’s first Portraits Untold sitting with John Akomfrah at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) on 16th July and sent this reflection on Tanya’s work and the journey they’ve taken as friends and as comrades within the Disability Arts Movement.

Who said Disability Art is dead? Oh yes, I did! Projects like ‘Portraits Untold’ with visual artist, Tanya Raabe, have made me realise I am so wrong!

Disability Arts has changed, grown up, moved with the times. This was really brought home to me after seeing Tanya’s live and interactive sitting with John Akomfrah at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on 16th July, this year. I watched it on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with Akomfrah’s work but I recognised the conversation because we shared a common language, rooted in minority culture and creativity.

series of sketches of the face of John Akomfrah showing the technique of the artist Tanya Raabe in building up brush strokes on the canvas

Sketches of John Akomfrah made by Tanya Raabe-Webber in a live sitting at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image © Portraits Untold

Now, I have seen Tanya work and talk in all kinds of settings but I never get tired of watching her create images. I am always in awe of the confidence she has with each mark she makes on the canvas, as if she instinctively knows that every stroke is exactly where it needs to be to make up the whole. To do this in front a live audience whilst engaging in conversation is inspiring.

As a writer, I often need a quiet sometimes darkened room to be able to really focus on just extracting the ideas from my head!  When asked if she finds talking and drawing difficult? She explained that the conversation actually helps her creative process and she uses it to inform her work.

It is me that has been stuck, clinging on to the late 80s and early 90s as a ‘Golden Age’ in our cultural development. Maybe it’s natural to try and grab on to memories of youth when you are getting a bit long in the tooth! Tanya and I have shared a cultural journey since our first meeting as sixteen year olds at Hereward College, back in the early 80s. However we have both taken very different paths to arrive at the same place we find ourselves, today.

It wasn’t just our experience of impairment that brought us together, but our childhood experiences of living away from home in institutions, Tanya in Yorkshire and myself in Cambridgeshire. I think we recognised, in each other, that steely determination that comes from living in such sterile and emotionally cold environments. We made the best of it and I believe it made us very strong young women.

We lost touch after Hereward as we passed through higher education and employment. Whilst Tanya was exploring disability and social attitudes, through her art, I was being politicised in the public sector and the unions. Tanya found her identity and voice in Disability Arts and I found my love of words and working class roots in rallying cries and kicking against the status quo. We both had so much energy and attitude back then!

At some point in the early 90s our worlds merged again through great initiatives such LDAF, DAIL Magazine and SHAPE. I became involved in SHAPE East and fell in love with cabaret performance by the likes of Ian Stanton, David Hevey, Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth.

Tanya was making a real impact on visual art as an artist in her own right, speaking at national conferences and later, international conferences. I still laugh remembering her scathing Yorkshire tongue lashing out at the Russians for their awful attitudes and appalling access.

“Never again!” she had said but I have since learned to ignore this remark because she always does it again… She just grabs life and opportunities like a child in a sweet shop.

Tanya and I are the best of friends and we shared our 50th year on the planet in 2015. Most women wouldn’t want you to know that but for Tanya and I, it is a wonderful thing to have survived half a century; to have achieved the things we have and be blessed with a friendship that is strong enough to withstand the test of time.

The second sitting will feature Dame Evelyn Glennie at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 22nd July 2016
Take part by contributing your drawing via Facebook, twitter and Instagram and tagging #PortraitsUntold
Twitter: https://twitter.com/PortraitsUntold
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Don’t miss the rest of Portraits Untold. Go online at http://portraitsuntold.co.uk/ to see what’s coming next!

To see some of Ann Young’s work, visit her blog: Human Writes.