Michelle Baharier showcases a series of acrylic portraits of prominent disabled people she made earlier this year. Alongside the paintings she gives an account of each of the five people she chose to make portraits of, after discussions on DAO’s Facebook group.
Painting is an enormous part of my practice. When I start a portrait painting I do a bit of sketching and drawing and then I build up the painting on canvas. I guess it’s an old-fashioned way of painting, but I give my canvases a dark ground and then I’ll build up layers of paint. So it takes me a little while because the process means having to leave things to dry before the next stage. I use acrylics for practical reasons mainly – they’re not as messy as oils – but I like also the fact that you can create a slight watercolor effect with them. I always think painting light on top of dark makes the light shine from the canvas all the more. I also like doing things in batches, so having several paintings on the go at once, is usual for me, although it means I have to keep swapping canvases over around my living space. So I am going to talk about each person in turn and give some background as to why I chose them.
John Pring: disabled journalist and editor of the Disability News Service
I just think John is quite instrumental as a voice for disabled people. Disability communities don’t have much of a voice in the press generally, so it’s important that we have some disabled journalists who are prepared to speak from a rights-based point of view.
And although the Disability News Service is not in the mainstream John has done some important investigations into the cruelty behind the way the Department of Work and Pensions have engaged with disabled people – the suicides related to the PIP assessments for benefits in particular.
Those are really important stories to break, because disabled people get dismissed so much and our voices are so often crushed. And to be brave enough to break those stories and to give humanity to the way people have been treated. John keeps pushing our agenda and his stuff has then been taken up by more mainstream papers. For me that’s just so important.
The pandemic has John’s role an even higher priority, because all the people who continue to need to shield or who need treatments and can’t get them.
To emphasise the power of John’s work I wanted to collage some newsprint into the painting. John is a wordsmith and who is very single minded about disability rights, a cause which otherwise wouldn’t get heard.
Penny Pepper: disabled writer and activist
I chose Penny Pepper because she’s a bright light; colorful in her dress sense and she makes me laugh. She’s got a really great sense of humor. And we both share having a background as punk rockers in our formative years and we share other similarities in that we both write a lot of raunchy poetry, as well as poems about buses and accessibility. There was a poem of hers that made me think, recently – it was about her observing somebody else, and the image they presented wearing a leather bomber jacket. And it’s just a just a wonderful poem about youth and how we form ourselves as people. Sometimes it’s about thinking “well, that person is having a good time. I want to be like that. You know.” She gets that across.
And Penny keeps on pushing the boundaries. She’s been on Radio 4 and she’s been on the telly. She worked so hard at getting her books published. Her memoir ‘First in the world, somewhere’ has got my name in it as well as hundreds of other people’s names. She’s a really important role model, for all of us, really. It’s important that we should all be pushing the boundaries. I like the way that she refuses to talk about all the medical stuff that the media wants to foist on her when they engage. She always focuses on barriers and pushes medical questions to one side, because she wants to be a person, not an object to be dissected. It’s really important for other disabled people to know they have permission to refuse to be dissected, which is something remarkable that Penny has managed to do.
Baroness Jane Campbell, disability rights campaigner and member of the House of Lords
When I first started thinking about the portrait of Jane Campbell, I wanted to paint “nothing about us without us” into the canvas because it’s a really hard role that she occupies, representing disabled people. And “nothing about us without us” still hasn’t sunk in, even though it’s like a slogan from 25 years ago. It’s hard, if not impossible to get politicians to engage with disability issues in parliament; or in the House of Lords. The whole environment and the way it operates with a public school setup and a whole regime of protocols, is not accessible. My guess is that Jane has had to learn things the hard way. It must have been very hard for her. It’s rare that you’ll find anyone within that political arena who is prepared to show up to any debate or anything to do with disabled people’s rights, unless they have a personal interest.
It’s so hard to protest in the current climate, when physically going to number 10 Downing Street is not an option. I think it’s important that we let people like Jane know that we’re thinking about them and we care about them. Disabled people like her take a lot of responsibility, because they’re battling from the inside. And it’s important that they understand that if they don’t achieve everything we want them to achieve, we know it isn’t because they’re not trying. It can be really lonely in those sorts of roles and so it’s important disabled communities offer solidarity.
Tanni Grey-Thompson is another one. I didn’t choose to paint her this time because I already did a portrait of her for a mural. But whatever we might feel about the validity of an institution like the House of Lords it’s so important that people like Tanni and Jane are there.
The reality is that what rights as citizens that we have are precious because they could be taken away so easily. And without those people there to argue on our behalf we would be lost. The real question is how do we get more disabled people into that position?
Liz Carr, disabled actor and activist
The main thing I’d like to say about Liz Carr is that she’s very voracious in a good way. She gets out there, pushing forwards and she doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
She’d be great as a prime minister. I’ve seen her talk many times and she’s very radical in her views and so I’ve portrayed her with an arm band containing the image of a fist to represent just how powerful I think she is.
She pushes boundaries and pushes prejudice, which is so important. She has to be admired for all her work on TV and in the media. For so many actors and actresses, it’s a lot about what they look like, you know.
So by being in that world, Liz is changing the way people think. It’s a fact that there’s this archetype of the perfect body that the world of acting conforms to; that is quite fascistic in the body type it promotes. And Liz is challenging those images of what it means to be a successful actor… she’s breaking through the mould. What she’s doing is revolutionary isn’t it.
Katherine Araniello: live art, performance and video artist
Katherine was probably the hardest person to paint, partly because she has died and partly because she was so unique. She has an aura that can be summed up by her cheekiness, you know, she has a wink in her eye that is hard to capture. Her performance art was so new and out there and also just very funny.
I knew Katherine for many years and like when the Paralympics were on, she found that quite hard – the way that disabled people were projected in the media as ‘superhumans’. The whole notion of the ‘superhuman’ is mythological – it takes us directly into those stereotypes of the kinds of things you are meant to be able to achieve with this idea of a disabled person with a special power. She had a brilliant ability to transform her anger about disability prejudice like that into humor, which she did again and again with the videos she made.
Katherine also had a great capacity to enjoy her life. She loved to party! I met her at a party and the last time I saw her was at a New Year’s Eve party at her house. So this painting of her was taken from a photograph I took at that party. Katherine was a pragmatist. She just got on with life – it was her strength of character and partly that came from her awareness of her mortality. In some ways I think that just gave her the determination to enjoy her life as much as possible and to develop artistically. It was always important to Katherine to be understood as a professional artist and she created an amazing body of work. I think the Dinner Party was the big breakthrough for her. She was playing with the whole idea of unconscious bias about her quality of life, as a disabled person in that piece. You know it’s quite disgusting in itself, isn’t it, that people with Katherine’s level of impairment are constantly put in the position of having to prove their quality of life.
Two of Michelle Bahariers’ paintings – that of Liz Carr and Penny Pepper are on display as part of ‘She answered, “Art”’ – a virtual exhibition featuring members of the South London collective, South London Women Artists, curated by Gita Joshi of The Curators Salon
Michelle is a contributor to:
The MadCovid diaries – an intersectional mental health community for survivor and service-user led projects.
The Brown Envelope Book – anthology produced in collaboration with Don’t Go Breakin’ Our Arts.
Dwell Time Press – video performances made during lockdown
The Postcard Project: exhibition on the weekend of 14th–15th August. Details of the opening event on Saturday 18:00-21:30: £1 per ticket can be found on the Facebook event page.
For more information about Michelle Baharier’s multidisciplinary art practice go to her website and YouTube channel