The Importance of Artistic Personae

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Zuleika Lebow writes from lived experience of the power of self-defining as a She Wolf as a way of gaining agency in a world that seeks to marginalise.

Close up photograph of a snarling werewolf figurine

A werewolf. Image courtesy of Nathan Ruper via Flickr. Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Persona:

A Latin word, probably derived from the Etruscan phersu and the Greek prosopon,  all meaning mask.

  • the aspect of one’s character that is presented to or perceived by others 
  • a role or character adopted by an author or actor

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, I wrote a piece called In Praise of Shewolves explaining why and how I have come to adopt the werewolf as an emblem or artistic persona. I have Lupus, which means wolf in Latin. When I was given my diagnosis after nearly a year of visits to A&E and medical gaslighting, the first thing I said was “Well, I guess I’m a werewolf then!” 

Too often, the experience of disability is sanitised (the symbol for Lupus is a purple butterfly), treated as taboo or greeted as a source of pity. Those reactions are infuriating. A lot of the time anger is a luxury disabled people, disabled Black and Brown people and especially disabled Black and Brown people who present as female, cannot afford. Getting angry can cost us care, friendships, employment, romance…the list goes on. Sitting at the junction of ableism, misogyny and racism is a really difficult place to be – and we should be allowed to be angry about that. 

A purple butterfly, sunning itself

The symbol for lupus is a purple butterfly…Image courtesy of Aah-Yeah via Flickr. Used under CC BY 2.0

Whenever I encountered one of these isms, I started asking myself what my inner werewolf would do. The medical narrative around disability is so often one of brokenness, particularly when you become disabled (as we all will). Embracing her, my She Wolf, gave me permission to shake off the ridiculous and frankly damaging idea that I was broken, and begin to think of myself as someone who had merely transformed. I was a different version of myself now: no more, no less. As I unpacked living life as a disabled woman and an artist, I started thinking more about what would change about my career and what I wanted to change, now that I was a werewolf. At the time, my education around disability arts was sorely lacking, I daresay it still is. However, I wanted to find a way to take my She Wolf with me whenever I worked, performed, or had to speak publicly. I found myself shapeshifting into her skin whenever I needed her, a subtle way of staying who I am when the circumstances of life attempted to disempower me and make me forget myself. 

Since then, I have been curious about the ways that other disabled artists have used and are using science-fiction as allegory to describe their experience. Donna Harraway’s seminal 1985 work The Cyborg Manifesto has made space for thinking about bodies, gender and humanness that many in the disabled community resonate with. In a very real way, a lot of us are low-fi cyborgs; using a multiplicity of technologies to assist with daily life; joint replacements and pins made of metal or polyceramic; powered and unpowered mobility aids; even our relationships with birth control apparatus bring us closer to the edge of human and machine than we have ever been before. 

Some of the contributors I have invited to participate in this guest editorship, utilise artistic personae as a means of expressing how they have felt or feel about their disability in a way that is accessible to those perceiving their work. There is no singular experience of disability, but harnessing the power of an existing and widely more familiar concept such as; a werewolf shapeshifting, a cyborg, an alien coming to Earth bemused by the behaviour of humans, can make the process a little easier for both artist and audience. We all need a frame of reference. Without the use of these metaphors, describing our individual experiences of disability would probably be similar to Harry Potter explaining magic to muggles: unless you get it, you won’t get it. 

However, there are problems with using an artistic persona or science fiction allegory to speak artistically about the disabled experience. Sometimes, the point can get lost. Certainly, when I wrote In Praise of Shewolves, I didn’t consider that using werewolf transformations as a metaphor for the mental and physical pain, anguish and confusion I experienced when I became disabled could be considered to be some hefty internalised ableism rearing its ugly head. Effectively comparing becoming disabled to a horror movie was not my intention, but it certainly could be read this way. Cyborg, alien, X-Men/mutant, werewolf and AI allegories of disability could be viewed in the same way, and I would say that it’s important that we operate mindfully when using these analogies. As I have said, so much about disability is erased that it is essential that we don’t fall into the trap of allowing our use of fantastical metaphors to overshadow the very real experience of disabled life in the here and now. The irony of the term persona meaning mask, is not lost on any of us. 

Having said this, we must also make room for those of us who are empowered by an artistic persona in the first place. For my own part, identifying with my inner She Wolf allowed me to build the necessary bridge between Zuleika pre and post Lupus diagnosis. The She Wolf had always existed in me, but I had previously blocked her at every turn, doubting myself and my creative capacity. It is only the current version of myself – post all the soul searching that was a necessary component of coming to terms with my diagnosis – that has had the courage to let her out to play once in a while or even acknowledge her existence. My creativity has a wild side: it isn’t tidy, or cute, or commercial, or comfortable or nice. It has teeth and claws, it’s curious, it’s visceral and it’s hungry (as a multidisciplinary artist, you could say I’m omnivorous). 

To quote Annabel Crowley, artist, carer, educator, extra-terrestrial and contributor to this first newsletter, “Imagining ourselves as extra-terrestrial or fantastical can help us to dream beyond the roles assigned to us by powerful ideologies like global capitalism and neoliberalism. To resist learned helplessness by creating new worlds where we can experiment with our choices.” Going one step further, the creation of these personae allows us to change. As artists who happen to be disabled, you could say that our default setting is one of adaptation – there is strength and power in taking something which was never made for you and changing it. Moving beyond a prescribed state of disempowerment to one that allows flexibility of thought, personal and artistic growth, inspiration and a framework within which to dream.