Presenting disability arts within the visual arts – a US perspective


In the first of a series of articles, contemporary classical music composer and performer Molly Joyce writes about disability as a creative source, given a US slant to the discourse.

When one presents creative work motivated by disability, how do artists present it? Is it narrative first, telling the story of acquiring an impairment and experience of disability? Or is it through a more academic, abstract lens, explaining the social model and how that can be applied to explore the creative impulse that can be sparked by disability?

As a composer and performer whose output is continually informed by disability, this question has been at the forefront of my practice. My motivation to continue presenting work with this focus has redoubled despite lack of critique and discussion from the arts media. I wondered if this was due to colleagues trying to be sensitive to the inherent subject, and/or not knowing appropriate language or context to discuss the work.

So, I began asking artists, curators, academics and others about their strategies. Presenting disability work can range from unacknowledged impetuses to thorough descriptions with accessibility measures, and while it certainly depends on the individual artist and artwork, such act doesn’t have to pass as a victim story or too sensitive to critically discuss. It can create a new aesthetic, approach, and outcome for all.

photo of an artwork

Currently, 2019, Finnegan.

My exploration starts with the visual arts, and will expand to performing and literary fields in following articles. For visual arts I interviewed artists Shannon Finnegan and Sandie Yi, as well as curators Lisa Slominski and Betty Siegel and Katharine Mead of the Kennedy Center’s VSA program.

With the artists, I wished to learn how presenting their work has evolved over their careers. Both Finnegan and Yi had a trajectory of initially not acknowledging their disability, and engaging with it more upon meeting other disabled individuals and learning of the social model.

Finnegan explained that disability was “always part of my life and what I was thinking about”, however when starting to explore it in her work she had a “deep-seated fear that especially people who have known me for a long time, will think this is coming out of thin air or is a play to get a certain type of attention. That fear was rooted in my own internalized ableism.”

On contextualizing disability, she adds: “We all have different relationships to impairment and how we navigate the world, and there should be room for all of the expressions of that and variations of that.” This is evident in Finnegan’s Currently, which highlights the phrase “Reinventing my strangeness as an art form that only I am the perfect practitioner of.”

Furthermore, on why some may be hesitant to critique and discuss the aesthetic behind disability art, Finnegan articulates that “disability is so medicalized that those are the reference points that come to mind when someone is interpreting it,” and her approach has progressed to “reframing it around the idea of who is not part of ‘the public’ and why. How can we intervene in inaccessible places to broaden the potential for social participation?” Such is demonstrated in Do you want us here or not 1, a bench which states “This exhibition has asked me to stand for too long, sit if you agree.”

photo of an artwork

Do you want us here or not 1, 2018. Image © Finnegan

Artist Sandie Yi expressed similar sentiments, starting out she was “perceived as very sensitive… not confident in herself”, however in retrospect “didn’t like it for all the right reasons… to always be an inspiration to people who are trying to feel good about themselves.” Upon reading the collection Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, Yi realized “it wasn’t about being too weak or being too sensitive”, and “being around other disabled artists helped me gain an idea of what the social model means.”

On early attempts to incorporate disability into her artwork, Yi explained it was narrative- based and part of her was worried people would not understand. She didn’t have the language to distinguish such, and recognizing the disability aesthetic as a real concept evolved her own output. Such is evident in Skinny, a photograph displaying her impaired hands.

In terms of critique, Yi notes a progression from initial experiences, with viewers remarking her hands can do so much while she was “only making basic sketches that looked like nothing”, to striving for constructive discourse and discussion. “I like having solid critique and being able to converse about issues I’m dealing with or am exploring and investigating in my work… it helps us build community and… I can take on the language and reframe my work.”

photo of a female figure holding an artwork

Hairy Undies, series #2. Image © Yi

For presenters, curator Lisa Slominski mentioned barriers often with “categorization” for disability work as “‘outreach’ or as an ‘educational’ project instead of considered as the main exhibition.” Her approach is “to always highlight the artistic merit of the work and concept first… it can be about identity and personal experience but presented/ contextualized in a way so that artists are recognized for their talent first.”

photo of an artwork

Still from Sandra Lott’s ‘Dream Swimming Pool’ (2019). Image courtesy Posy Dixon & Submit to Love Studio

When asked if artists should share their direct narrative, Katharine Mead of the Kennedy Center’s VSA program finds such “very impactful when people speak from the authority of their own stories”, and is difficult in a society “that hasn’t always provided everyone with the same confidence or platform or willingness to hear those stories.” Mead elaborated “to remember all the ways disability intersects with every other kind of identity… there is a hunger for that and a need for that.”

Furthermore, VSA’s Betty Siegel added the civil rights component in the U.S., specifically with the Americans with Disabilities Act: “if access and inclusion are a civil right… an institution like the Kennedy Center has a heightened obligation to model the fact that civil rights are civil rights whether it is convenient or inconvenient for the institution.” When presenting disabled artists VSA asks if they wish to identify, however for the young artists presented it can be precarious as they are asking “very young people to choose right now,” and “with the internet and social media, once out there the information never goes away.” Such decisions reflect how identifying as a disabled artist is a different trajectory for each individual.

Within the visual arts it seems there is a process of both sharing personal narrative, as well as linking the disability experience to a wider understanding of humanity in seeking common connections and civil rights. It will be interesting how such notions differ within performing and literary arts, and whether they transcend disciplinary approaches and outcomes. I believe it is imperative to tune into disability as permanent, temporary, and possible to all, and bring that to disability arts discourse and engagement.

Shannon Finnegan: Lone Proponent of Wall-to-Wall Carpet
Curated by Heather Anderson and Fiona Wright
Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario
09 February – 19 April 2020

Shannon Finnegan: Disarming Language: disability, communication, rupture
Curated by Christine Sun Kim and Niels Van Tomme
Tallinn Art Hall, Estonia
14 December – 24 February 2020

Finnegan is also currently showing work in The High Line – a public park in New York City, US.

Sandie Yi: Recoding CripTech
SOMArts Cultural Centre, San Francisco, US
24 January – 25 February 2020
Crip Couture, online
A collection of wearable works, this project explores the impact of ethical and medical decisions made about the body; the boundary between ethics and aesthetics; the idea of the body in flux; and body ownership (reclaiming the body).

Lisa Slominski is a curator who writes commissioned art editorials and lectures for Christie’s Education and recently for Queen Mary University’s MSc in Creative Arts. She recently worked with Submit to Love on a film project headed by their artist-in-residence Posy Dixon and is working with Summertime Gallery on a curated show later in 2020.