Arts featured Inclusion

Towards a strong disability arts scene in Atlantic Canada — A look at disability arts, part 2

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In my introduction to disability arts we talked a bit about what disability arts is. In this follow up we will take a look at some examples of disability art from Nova Scotia, elsewhere in Canada and the world to provide inspiration for a stronger disability arts scene in Atlantic Canada.

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As disabilities activist and scholar Colin Barnes says, disability art “is the development of shared cultural meanings and collective expression of the experience of disability and struggle.  This entails using art to expose the discrimination and prejudice disabled people face and to generate group consciousness and solidarity.

Here in Nova Scotia, actress/writer/spoken word artist Laura Burke is a well-known local disability artist.  This 2010 video is set to her poem “Superhero”. Laura is also a key figure in the local Mad Pride movement.

Also, in Dartmouth, there is Insight Gallery, which displays and sells artwork created by artists with disabilities. It is a project of the Veith Street Gallery Studio Association, and its biggest program is Creative Spirit East, a collective of over 100 artists.  There are also studios for artists to work on their art.

Most practitioners of Disability Arts lean towards literature and visual arts, and occasionally theater.  Other fields of practice aren’t as common.  There are, however, some notable exceptions.

In the area of film making, the most prominent avenue for people with disabilities in the Atlantic Provinces to have their voices heard is the Bluenose-Ability Film Festival, organized by reachAbility.  Launched in 2015, it is the first and only disability film festival in Atlantic Canada.  BAFF gives both experienced and novice filmmakers a platform to encourage dialogue about disability and mental health.

Another potential vehicle for local disability artists is the Mayworks Halifax Festival of Working People & the Arts. While its main goal is to celebrate and recognize the history and struggle of Nova Scotia’s working people, it also includes art that speaks to any fight for social, economic, or environmental justice.  Mayworks accepts several different arts disciplines, including visual arts, music, dance, storytelling, spoken word, theatre, film/video, and interdisciplinary.

One of the most unique and innovative ways for disability artists to showcase their work is in the area known as expanded cinema.  Expanded cinema blends approaches from experimental film, sculpture, architecture, performance art, installation, and other disciplines in order to explore forms of film presentation other than traditional theatres.  Some examples include: blending film and theater performance; musicians creating a visual experience for their sound; and experimental filmmakers working with storytellers.

As defined by the Canada Council, disability arts “carries a high degree of innovation and breaks traditional or dominant artistic conventions to bring distinct perspectives and ways of being into the arts ecology, shifting perceptions and understandings of human diversity.”  With this in mind, expanded cinema is a unique and innovative way to get their message across.

But without a doubt, one of the absolute best examples of disability art I’ve seen is this video from Pro Infirmis, a Swiss organization for people with disabilities. For the 2013 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pro Infirmis created mannequins of people with scoliosis, shortened limbs, and a woman in a wheelchair, to emphasize that no one’s body is perfect.  The mannequins were displayed modeling clothes in five storefront windows on Bahnhofstrass in Zurich, one of the most expensive and exclusive shopping districts in the world.  The campaign quickly went viral, in no small part due to the fact that the fashion industry and clothing stores often contribute to unhealthy body image stereotypes.

As mentioned in Part 1, the Atlantic provinces are seriously underdeveloped in the area of disability arts.  There are a few notable disability artists in Nova Scotia, as well as some programs to help disability artists create and promote their work, but disability art is still, to a certain extent, an underground movement.  

The various examples I’ve outlined in this article will hopefully provide some ideas for a strong disability arts scene in Atlantic Canada.  A strong disability arts culture enriches the disability community, and the community in general.  Everyone benefits from a strong disability arts culture.

For further reading check out  Autonomous Press, which has been a leader in the promotion of  disability art. Autonomous Press is an American independent publishing company that publishes books by traditionally marginalized voices.  All its main partners are autistic, but they also publish authors who create important work on wider disability issues, as well as gender, class, and race.  Autonomous Press also has a secondary imprint, NeuroQueer Books, which focuses on work that explores the intersectionalities between neurodivergence and queer issues.

Many Autistic and other disabled artists sell their work on the online marketplace Redbubble, which sells print-on-demand products based on user-submitted artwork.  Members can sell their artwork on T-shirts, stickers, wall art, cushions, laptop sleeves, and other products.

More about the illustrations:

The artists of Creative Spirit East number more than 100, and embody almost every imaginable genre of fine art and design. Creative Spirit East is a heterogenic group with differing styles, ages, and education levels who all have the same thing in common – a drive to create and be a part of the arts community.

The Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Library’s Redbubble store has several designs that feature the official mascot, the Neurodivergent Narwhals. The narwhals are a fun, easy-to-understand way of educating children and adults about autism and neurodiversity. It is operated by Lei Wiley-Mydske, an Autistic adult and mother of an Autistic son. Lei is currently developing a Neurodivergent Narwhals colouring book.

Hussain Faridi is an artist originally from Iran and has been a member of Creative Spirit East since 2010. He is currently completing illustrations to be published with Farsi, Arabic and English translations of the Arabic children’s book “Little Mr. Mouse”.

Tristan Cooke is a Dartmouth artist with a talent for emotive figurative abstractions of life and form with oil paint.

The Spoon Knife Anthology: Thoughts on Compliance, Defiance, and Resistance Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber The Spoon Knife Anthology series is published under Autonomous Press’ NeuroQueer Books imprint. It is an annual open-call collection to find new talent and to bring together their favourite regular contributors in a celebration of literature that pushes boundaries and defines the interiors of neurodivergent, Queer, and Mad experiences.

All illustrations used with permission.

Alex Kronstein is an autistic adult and host of the podcast The NeurodiveCast.  He is passionate about disability rights, social justice issues, and filmmaking.  Follow Alex on Twitter.

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