Reimagining the disability arts aesthetic in relation to healing and repair

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Guest Editor, Omikemi argues that our vulnerabilities, needs and desire to repair and heal are potent forces for political action.

Shadow of a finger and thumb encloses around a broken snail shell

Image courtesy of Pixle via Flickr. Used under (CC BY 2.0).

The creative and healing process has always been close to healing for me, in the sense that both necessitate being led by some other intelligence

In the spring I created Way Making, an online black-centred creative and healing arts space in response to what seemed like the need

for a space to share experience, generate and exchange knowledge, rest, restore and most importantly, connect

in a climate of hyper-visible racialised violence, the pandemic and social distancing. Way Making has been an attempt

to offer a non-professionalised space and care, particularly to those experiencing isolation for multiple reasons, such as

having conditions or responsibilities such as anxiety or care duties which precluded participating in other in-person acts of care and/or resistance

A few months on and I’ve started to see how creating the online space has been a part of my own personal healing and repair process

It’s been a way of taking steps to towards “getting back into the body” – the community, after the lingering impact of family estrangement

When you walk out into the world without love, support and safe-keeping of inherited kin you walk out into the world without an immune system

Living with CPTSD, neurodivergence, auto immune conditions, the aftermath and gifts of survivorship while being estranged is challenging

There are many of us estranged kin and still little research on the experience. It’s currently estimated that 5 million adults in the UK

are affected such circumstances . It’s commonly thought estrangement happens in one moment, more often it happens in stages

Cartoon image of a broken heart with two plasters on it

Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond (CC BY 2.0)

with the underlying cause being deep betrayals of trust. When this happens with our family of origin it can make creating connectedness

an arduous experience; making a family of choice, which plays a significant role in our ability to thrive and survive is tough enough

at the best of times, let alone the social distancing, social bubbles, closure of public gathering spaces exacerbating the struggle

In some way the project was a ripening of multiple conditions which lead me towards developing a creative project explicitly focused on healing,

the deep sense of disconnection that I have experienced due to family estrangement. It’s also become part of the constellation

of trees, ancestral and body work practices, astrological happenings and global scatterings of kin supporting

the re-imagining of what family can be. I think this is what healing and disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha speaks to

when she writes, “as long as we need to heal, we will continue to dream into being the exact kind of healing we need”[2]

Yet the move towards a practice explicitly centring care and healing has felt odd, obvious, incongruous

I recognise the discomfort as stemming from blood kin and cultural conditioning, and in relation to my contributing to disability arts

the distinct historical dis-ease between arts and healing in the UK mainstream disability arts aesthetic

I’ve experienced a lot of care, spaciousness and patience working in disability-led organisations which has been reparative and healing

There are artists like Nila Gupta with their offering of life-drawing and touch sessions which clearly have care as an intention

Yet it still feels as though the considerations of care and healing are barely perceptible within the UK mainstream disability arts aesthetic

The uneasy association between disability arts, care and healing has been long-standing and often in response to specific social settings

where the term healing was used to patronise, pathologize and in many cases institutionalise disabled people

This is emulated in the definition of disability arts offered by Alan Sutherland, who defined disability arts as,

“seriously intentioned creative work, poems, painting, music…or whatever – made with some sort of aesthetic purpose. It’s not a hobby

to keep the cripples’ hands busy and it is not therapy” [3] I do not think this is necessarily representative of the disability arts aesthetic today

but points us toward the uneasy association and at time, disavowal of the healing and care element with the aesthetic

I sense the social model approach to participation, emphasis on rights, independence and more “tangible” forms of access side-lined healing,

and wonder whether this has led to the reinforcement of an ableist imagination within the aesthetic. From this perspective the word healing

seems incongruous because it is being read as signalling disabled bodies are in need of fixing or a desire to become as able-bodied as possible

If this is the case it’s not hard to comprehend why, illness, healing and disability struggle to sit comfortably in the same sentence

I’m also inclined to think that the distancing from care and healing within the mainstream disability arts aesthetic is some kind of dissociation

from the vulnerability and sense of disconnection that can stem from living in an ableist society

As we know, it’s very possible to create a movements based on accessing equality without reckoning with the hurt arising from disconnection

I think that when we are talking about access, we’re also talking about repairing and retrieving connectedness and we may be overlooking

a vital component if we don’t address this, as Cara Page, a Black and Indigenous queer organiser in the healing justice movement said,

“our movements themselves have to be healing otherwise there’s no point to them”[4]

Perhaps I’m prone to think this because writing this comes from my own sense of absence and need for repair and retrieval

Right now, writing offers a way of being with the loss of an elder, friend and a rare source of deep unconditional love and acceptance

It’s been four weeks, everything still swims. Words walk out of sentences; the current loss awakening a network of other losses and absences

I sense the hyper-visible racialised violence, pandemic and deaths have activated many complicated and incomplete grief processes

connecting to the genocide of ancestors, erasure of lineages, migrants unable to grieve the deaths of parents and siblings living back home

disrupted attachments between siblings, children and parents, separated and sent for, and in my own case the loss of inherited kin

through abuse, addiction, mental illness, which is not separate from but part of living in systems of extraction, exploitation and oppression

A starry night sky shot over mountains

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The vulnerabilities we are left with as a result of living in these systems make care and healing imperative

and urge us towards a deeper resting in our interconnectedness than traditional social mobility approaches

In dominant thought the need for care insinuates weakness and fragility and is feminised. I sense some of this is why care and healing aspects

of the movement have been side-lined, perhaps even dismissed within the UK mainstream disability arts aesthetic

In Sick Woman Theory, Johanna Hedva points to this and invites us to think, “how illness, disability and vulnerability feminize—

e.g., render “weaker” and “more fragile”—— any person who requires care” I would add healing to this and sense

some resistance to fragility could be present in the pejorative use of the word therapy in Sutherland’s definition, of which healing is integral

In the lineage that has inspired me to write, authors like Sapphire, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Pat Parker,

Created work that engendered modes of care, demanded systemic transformation and, most significantly for me,

offered brilliant examples of transmutation and the vigour of creative practice emerging from the desire to care, repair and heal

For me, their work exemplifies how our vulnerabilities, needs and desire to repair and heal are potent forces for political action

It’s not a coincidence that a person occupying my social co- ordinates on the grid, is asking these questions

I sense care and healing has been side-lined and somewhat dismissed within the mainstream disability arts aesthetic

because some of those in a position to influence and define the aesthetic have been operating from and within

a racist cis-heteronormative, capitalist, ableist mode of production perspective and imagination

Sick Woman Theory, has prompted me to articulate a socially engaged creative and healing arts practice

It’s led me to imagine a disability arts aesthetic that centres healing and creates more space for work and practices that support this

It’s led me to think about intentional healing partnerships between artists and their co-creators e.g. natural word, organisations etc

where care and healing are the intelligence guiding the creative process. If, as Hedva states,

“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honour it and empower it” ,

and we understand ableism as deeply rooted in capitalism, there are strong ground to suggest care and healing

need to be fundamental aspects of a future disability arts aesthetic alongside our other freedom and justice practices


[1] Stand Alone  – The first UK charity to support estranged adults in their localities (standalone.org.uk) 2015 Charity Report for more information about UK research into estrangement – HiddenVoices.FinalReport.pdf (standalone.org.uk)

[2] Piepzna-Samarasinha, L, L, 2018, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, p 110

[3] Sutherland, A, 2005, What is Disability Arts? Allan Sutherland: What is Disability Arts? – disability arts online

Disability Arts Online, July 2005

[4] Page, Cara, http://www.healingcollectivetrauma.com/kindred-collective-wellness-within-liberation.html

[5] Hedva, J, 2016, Sick Woman Theory, SickWomanTheory_Hedva_2020.docx (johannahedva.com) p8

[6] Hedva, J, 2016 Sick Woman Theory, WomanTheory_Hedva_2020.docx (johannahedva.com) p13