Artists with disabilities ignite new practices, attitudes

Happening now in the city, a local arts festival is challenging old assumptions about disability and aiming to advance disability culture in Canada.

The Kickstart Festival 2010 runs until March 27 in Vancouver at various venues as part of the Paralympics and Cultural Olympiad. The event includes two major visual arts exhibitions as well as dance performances and a comedy show.

Geoff McMurchy is the artistic director for Kickstart, the nonprofit society that organizes the festival, and also an artist with a disability.

Geoff McMurchy, Artistic Director, Kickstart Festival

“We offer the mainstream community a whole new palette of ways of being, moving, and interacting with faces and bodies,” he said, adding artists with disabilities are offering new ways to collaborate with others by providing new source material. In turn, artists and the public have new territory to explore.

“The arts have a powerful way of reaching people—we’re realizing that as a community,” he said.

They are also aware of the educational role the arts have in helping to strengthen the community and engendering disability pride. “We’re providing role models so people with a disability will think, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.'”

McMurchy said that full inclusion is a cultural task as much as a political one. Disability culture aims to have people with disabilities tell their own stories and take control of their images and their subsequent portrayals. Artists have a powerful role to play in converging advocacy messages on deeper emotional levels to bypass the intellectual and make people realize that people with disabilities are human beings first.

“Historically, people with disabilities have been portrayed as incredibly heroic or pathetic and needy, often evil,” he said. “They haven’t been portrayed as whole human beings in their complexity.”

Two major exhibitions are on display during the festival—Out From Under: Disability, History & Things to Remember and Heroes. At UBC’s Robson Square until March 21, the former takes a historical look at the resilience, creativity and cultural contributions of Canadians with disabilities. At the HSBC’s Pendulum Gallery until March 27, the latter explores the meaning of “heroism” from a disability perspective through the work of 20 artists from across the country.

Bernadine Fox is the co-curator of Heroes. She is a Vancouver-based visual artist and writer who has chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

“People with disabilities are often told how courageous they are,” said Fox, adding that they have no choice in it and it’s not really a matter of courage. She said so often the disability takes over and the person isn’t seen just like anyone else. When the artist call went out, it asked people with disabilities to respond to the notion of heroism and what that means for them. The exhibition is meant to really challenge people to think about what it means to be a hero.

Persimmon Blackbridge is a local visual artist whose work appears in the exhibit. Fox said her mixed media sculptures of five acrobats are perfect metaphors for people with disabilities living their lives. Acrobats on a trapeze or doing a somersault show how it takes feats of agility, concentration, and ability to get through the day or how sometimes they might succeed or fail.

Fox said another preconceived notion the exhibition tries to dispel is that artists with disabilities aren’t producing professional work. Their art is seen as healing therapy or rehabilitation—they are being ghettoized or therapized—and they are not viewed as professionals advancing their practice in the same way as others. “Many viewers are blown away by the calibre of the art,” she said.

Jan Derbyshire has been a professional actor, writer, director and teacher for 22 years. At the festival, she will be performing her one-woman comedy show Funny in the Head on March 12 at UBC’s Chan Centre. The act came about after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago and her friends encouraged her to tell the story. Stage Left Productions, a professional multi- and interdisciplinary performance company in Calgary, commissioned the show.

Derbyshire wants to get more stories out there, especially ones that are different to the mainstream. “There’s such a stigma around mental health,” she said, adding people are often frightened because they don’t know much about it. She said on television, for example, it’s always the bipolar person that snaps and kills someone or burns the house down. “It’s a narrow representation.”

She also hopes that telling her own story will encourage others to tell their story, if not publicly, then at least to themselves and to their family.

“Mental health disorders can knock us out of life for awhile but we can get back in,” she said, noting she didn’t work at all for four years. “It’s a great feeling when you can overcome it.”

About Kerry Hall

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