Telling the story of the Disability Arts Movement: Art and Social Change


Art and Social Change, an exhibition at MAC Birmingham, immerses visitors in art from the disability arts movement. Gill Crawshaw enjoys the experience of looking back through our history, and emphasises the importance of bringing the story up-to-date.

At the far end of MAC’s Arena Gallery is a glowing pink light: Tony Heaton’s neon sculpture Raspberry Ripple, hung against a dark grey wall for added impact. The drama is matched at the entrance to the gallery, where Great Britain from a Wheelchair, another sculpture by Heaton, hangs away from the wall. It casts intricate shadows that give the piece a fresh dynamism. This is an engaging sculpture, a good introduction to disability arts. It’s well placed here.

photo of artwork

Leaded Light by Adam Reynolds. Photo © Marcin Sz

Whilst these artworks and other items in this exhibition are very familiar to me, there are many works I haven’t seen before. Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement does a fine job in bringing together better-known works with others that haven’t had as much exposure. I imagine this selection of work is having a powerful effect on new audiences, particularly disabled people. MAC is a busy arts centre, so Art and Social Change is bringing disability arts to the attention of a wide range of people.

The exhibition has been curated by Anna Berry, an artist on a year-long curatorial residency at MAC. This is part of a programme, delivered in partnership with DASH, to support the development of Deaf and disabled curators and to address the cultural changes needed in the visual arts sector in order for it to become more inclusive. Curators on the programme are not required to deliver projects which are so firmly rooted in disability arts and politics as this exhibition is. I’m heartened that Berry has taken the opportunity to give the story of the disability arts movement and works by disabled artists wider recognition. She’s in a position to understand our past while developing the movement of the future. This is why we need more disabled curators: they have the credibility and the confidence to present this type of work. I wonder how likely it is that a full-on disability arts exhibition would have taken place if Berry wasn’t part of MAC’s curatorial team.

Much of the work is from NDACA, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive. For those of us who cannot get to its Bucks New University location, exhibitions like Art and Social Change are vital. It’s great to see a selection from NDACA’s collection in Birmingham, alongside works lent by Shape and the artists themselves.

Pastel image of a figure in a wheelchair

Self Portrait by Nancy Willis (1983), pastel on ingres paper. NDACA.

The two works in the exhibition by Eddy Hardy remind me how powerful his work is. Hardy’s importance to the disability arts movement is sometimes overlooked. Hardy was a stalwart of DAN (Disabled People’s Direct Action Network) actions and disability arts events throughout the 1990s. He is one of many activists (alongside, for example, Ian Stanton and Alan Holdsworth, both of whom have songs playing on headphones in the exhibition) who embodied the close links between the disability arts movement and the disability rights movement. It is therefore apt that Hardy used self-portraiture to explore issues of disability, sexuality and identity.

portrait painting

Portrait of Sir Bert Massie by Tanya Raabe-Webber. Image courtesy of the artist

Tanya Raabe and Nancy Willis also interrogated these issues using self-portraits. In challenging commonly-held beliefs about beauty, both these women have produced beautiful art. A series of four colourful and semi-abstract pastels by Willis show her as poised and pensive. Further along is a large collection of Raabe’s work, starting with some of her early spiky and anarchic work using paint and collage.

Four portraits of other figures from disability arts and culture follow on, and show how her work has developed. This selection of Raabe’s work is practically a retrospective, and with the addition of just a few more pieces could have been an exhibition in its own right.

There is also a large selection of Steve Cribb’s work on show. Cribb was a pioneer of digital art, which enabled him to continue to draw and to illustrate his individual, verging on surreal, vision. He’s an important artist in the disability arts movement and its right that his work is included here. But displaying over a dozen of his small prints, the majority arranged in a large grid on one wall, feels too much (and means that some work is hung too high for many people to view). I felt that having a lot of pieces from just a couple of artists upset the balance of this exhibition, overshadowing other artists’ work.

Highlights of the exhibition for me were two sculptures by Adam Reynolds. Leaded Light is a bare lightbulb that cannot shed light because it is cast in lead. The tap of Current runs with long hair-like wires instead of water. By giving a twist to familiar objects, Reynolds gives them new meaning and shows beauty in the unusual.

I also liked the film of Aaron Williamson’s Singing the DDA – busking the Disability Discrimination Act to the chords of D, D and A can’t be easy – not least because this was one of a handful of recent works in the exhibition.

Art and Social Change is the latest of several exhibitions of the last few years that have looked back over the disability arts movement. For example: Art, Life, Activism at the Attenborough Centre, Leicester (2015); NDACA exhibition, City Hall, London (2018); Art, Anger and Rights from the Disability Arts Movement at the Grundy, Blackpool (2019).

I’ve enjoyed visiting these exhibitions and reacquainting myself with works that have given me a strong sense of community and of pride in disability culture. But I feel, even taken together, these exhibitions are only a partial retelling of the disability arts movement’s story. They tend to focus on the past, without giving as much attention to the exciting work being produced by a diverse range of disabled artists today. While the 1990s were great years for disability arts, in surveying the movement we must also show how it is growing, developing and, in fact, getting even better.

Art and Social Change: The Disability Arts Movement is on at MAC, Birmingham from 11 January to 22 March 2020.