Disability and Political Activism in Art

Want another reason to love (the late, Lord) Dickie Attenborough? Ya know, the “world leading filmmaker, actor and life-long patron of the arts”. Need another reason to hold him even closer to our collective nations’ breast? I got one: The newly opened gallery at the Attenborough Arts Centre.

Richard Attenborough founded the absolutely excellent Attenborough Arts Centre in 1997, in conjunction with The University of Leicester – the place where he grew up, literally on campus, and where his father, Frederick, was once principal. Now, eighteen years on, Attenborough Arts, steered by Richard’s son Michael, who was handed the patronage in 2014, continues to follow Richard’s vision and legacy by “striving to include everyone in great art, culture and learning”, resulting in a brand new £1.5 million gallery at the existing arts centre site.

Mental Spaghetti was lucky enough to be invited to the private view and press opening of the new gallery so went sent our founder, Marie-Louise Plum to its inaugural exhibition, Art Life Activism, to view both new and existing work from a proud clutch of important names in the world of disability and political activism in art.

Gallery One of the newly opened space

Gallery Three of the newly opened space

The new gallery, actually comprised of three warehouse-type spaces, built to make much better use of what was once a carpark, is in addition to the art centre’s existing exhibition space. Essentially the foyer and first floor balcony of the arts centre, this original space now acts as an exhibition space for local artists, as well as tutors at the art centre (like Diane E. Hall, pictured below), who are also encouraged to further their own art practice in the studios.

This really excites us – art tutors who are still practicing artists is not that uncommon, but a commercial place of work encouraging them to work on their own stuff and exhibit it? That’s becoming less common. In addition to the promise of local artists exhibiting alongside more well known artists, we love that this is happening there.

Diane E. Hall, ‘Drawing Differences’, exhibition in the existing Balcony Gallery. See more here.

Art Life Activism is part of a “new, socially engaged exhibition and events programme which will have a positive impact in the promotion and research of disability culture.”

Attenborough Arts have announced that their “visual arts programme will focus on art that is relevant, engaging and accessible, critical and progressive. Our exhibitions will have a social motivation exploring the changing role of contemporary art, its local and global relevance; supporting practical, aesthetic, and poetic new approaches to our society, our environment and our place within the two.”

The roll-call of artists on display during this exhibition is as follows…Tony Heaton, Noëmi Lakmaier, Aaron Williamson, Bobby Baker, Simon Raven, David Hevey, Adam Reynolds (obituary by Tony Heaton), Ann Whitehurst and Liz Crow. I urge you, dear reader, to click the links back there – all of them – for more information about each artist, and to see some of their work.

All the artists work on displace is absolutely essential to see, so you must, if you can, by train, bus, car, ferry, hovercraft, even a jetpack, get to Leicester to see this exhibition. You have until January 17th to do so. I don’t want to be the slackjaw gumflapper who ruins the surprise party for you, so without giving too much away, I’m going to give y’all sneak peak at a few choice cuts…starting with a mention of our kindly pal Bobby, of Daily Life Ltd.

In case you missed the rollercoaster-like, illustrated catalogue of illness that was Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings, exhibited at The Wellcome Collection in 2009, here’s another chance for you to see them. Although the entire collection isn’t there, a good wealth of framed diary drawings are on display. There is also a jolly but serious illustrated poster that I haven’t seen before, ‘Battle Hardened/How to be an activist’, commissioned by the Greenbelt Festival, perfectly fulfilling the criteria of an exhibition concerned with art, life and activism.

Bobby Baker, ‘Battle Hardened’

Bobby’s work sits under the golden glow of a hovering NHS issue ‘Invacar’, given to wheelchair users between 1948 and 1980’s as a ‘prosthetic’, later condemned on health and safety grounds (really). Gold Lamé is installation by artist and Shape Arts CEO, Tony Heaton OBE. Two other installations by Heaton, Great Britain from a Wheelchair, an “iconic item of disability arts and culture”, and Shaken Not Stirred are on display in Gallery Three and One, respectively.

Tony Heaton, ‘Shaken Not Stirred’ and ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’

“Shaken Not Stirred is a sculpture made out of 1,760 charity collection cans. Recreated in 1992 as part of the ‘Block Telethon’ campaign, it was part of a performance piece in which, during the press conference, Heaton rushed into the room and hurled a prosthetic leg into the pyramid, symbolically demolishing the hierarchy of charities.”

Aaron Williamson shrewdly commented that “The title Shaken Not Stirred reflects the essentially superficial act of assuaging one’s guilt/sense of superiority, by ‘giving’ to disabled people through charity appeals rather than through social justice and rights.”

That quote enables a snakey little segue into our chosen Exhibits of a Deliciously Curious Note category: The Affligare Unit, and the retrospective of ‘lifelong activist for disability rights’, Jim Chosen, both works by aforementioned Aaron Williamson. Neither the history of Jim Chosen or The Affligare are too well documented online, but definitely don’t Google them like I did, stick with your suspension of reality to get the real magic of these exhibits.

Exhibited objects from ‘The Affligare Unit’

On show are a few objects from the cached history of The Affligare Unit, which Williamson has curated, most of them having been “found in a hoard in Germany, beneath a barn in Hildesheim, in 1972 “. Williamson explains “The Affligare Unit were a tribe of disabled mendicants in medieval Europe. They formed after witnessing a meteor storm in the Netherlands”.

Our favourite Affligare objects on display are the Glimmerers Souvenirs*, talisman-like, mythical, folk art effigies, the Decorated skull, complete with brassy doubloonish eye shields, some kind of HG Wells conjured physical augury, a shamanic brain, and the Porringer Meteorite Bowl, which you must read more about, here.

*The 1811 Grose Dictionary describes Glimmerers thusly: ‘Persons begging with sham licences, pretending losses by fire.’ Aaron Williamson explains more about Glimmerers and the subject of 17th Century begging, here.

Exhibited items from ‘The Estate of Jim Chosen’

As for Jim Chosen, who sadly “died in 1994 when a bus ran into him as he crossed the road outside his squat in Lewisham”, and his ‘disibility rights group’, The Way Out, you really need to witness the documented history yourself. “Born to a paraplegic mother and a strict, militaristic father, Chosen saw disability as the last frontier for social inclusion after all the traditionally marginalised identities.

On display are a series of photographs featuring public announcements, statements in situ, and a collection of ephemera; memories, musings, notes, slogans, phrases and ideas all feature. See the Chosen 7″ record, in its illustrated sleeve, which reached number 48 in the charts in 1975 – the song featuring the lyric ‘Topsy Turvey’, which Chosen coined as a term for the need of revolutionary reversal and social upheaval. The lyric can also be found inscribed on Chosen’s guitar, also exhibited.

“These days, you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve when society’s wiping its nose all over your jacket.”

We were absolutely spirited away to new worlds by The Affligare Unit and the documented history of Jim Chosen. If it’s not clear enough already, we’d like to announce to the world that we bloody love Aaron Williamson and the worlds he weaves. If you’ve got thumbs, stick them up. Now.

More from the Estate of Jim Chosen

The most arresting piece of work in the exhibition is, without doubt, Simon Raven’s film The Tip on the Iceberg, simply a “scrolling list of names of people who are argued to have died in the UK following recent benefits sanctions.” The names alone illustrate a shocking register of desperation and despair, the result of huge social injustice. The real driving home of just how tragic the situation is, are the brief descriptions detailing the circumstances of each death, adding punctuation marks to what’s usually seen as names, numbers…statistics. This information, taken from a regularly updated list compiled by The Black Triangle, propels names and numbers into a reality that resonates, personally. The tip of the Iceberg is a response piece to Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Cry Freedom’, which features a scroll of people killed in police custody during apartheid in South Africa.

As we already said, all the work on display by each and every one of the artists is essential viewing, in terms of power, reason, activism, aesthetics and sensation. They will make you feel, take a knock or two, realign your thoughts, ask yourself questions. Spend time in there. Nothing is to be taken at face value.

DPAC Activist banner in Gallery Two

To compliment the current exhibition, and in addition to their creative learning courses, Attenborough Arts has a night of performance, debate and lectures, taking place on 10th December. Attenborough Arts invite you to “join our panel of experts and arts professionals for a discussion about contemporary art and political activism. Speakers include Shape Arts Chief executive and artist Tony Heaton, artist Aaron Williamson, and Professor Richard Sandell, from University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies. Bobby Baker is restaging ‘Drawing on a Mother’s Experience’. First staged in 1988, the work had almost 300 performances by the year 2000. Now a grandmother, Baker chooses to revisit the performance.”
More information here. It will be unmissable.

We’d like to give huge thanks to all of the exhibiting artists for sharing their work, and to Michaela, Patricia and Jessica, for making our visit so brilliant. Also, to all at Attenborough Arts Centre and gallery, rock on being righteous, it was a great privilege to be included on your opening day.

More information on the Attenborough Gallery

Entrance to the gallery is FREE. The exhibition opens to the public on Wednesday 18 November and will run until 17 January 2016. Opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 12pm to 4pm, closed Bank Holidays and between 24 December and 3 January 2016. An opening preview will take place on Tuesday 17 November, 6pm – 9pm. Tickets are FREE, but advanced booking is strongly advised at http://www.attenborougharts.com

As part of the exhibition, the Attenborough Forum Art, Life, Activism: Talks and performance will take place on Thursday 10 December, 5.30pm – 9pm at Attenborough Arts Centre. This forum includes a discussion with exhibiting artists Tony Heaton, Aaron Williamson, Bobby Baker; and Professor Richard Sandell, from the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies. The event includes Bobby Baker’s moving performance Drawing on a Mother’s Experience, performed over 300 times and revisited for the first time after 15 years of its creation. Tickets cost £10 / £5 concessions.

The Attenborough Arts Centre has been supported by the Breaking Barriers Appeal, which aims to help fulfil Richard Attenborough’s original vision to improve access to the arts for all. For more information about how to donate, please contact Ave Vinick at (0116) 252 2176 or arv4@le.ac.uk or make a gift online at http://www.le.ac.uk/breakingbarriers

The University of Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre prides itself on being accessible and inclusive. With over 18 years of experience, the programme offers courses and workshops, contemporary art, performance and live art, theatre and comedy, live music and jazz, dance, activities for children and families, and more. It is proud to champion emerging talent and disability-led performance companies, supporting those starting their careers. Its outstanding access and inclusive work has been recognised, through multiple awards and grants from Arts Council England, BBC Children in Need, Leicester Shire Promotions and Visit England. Its audience has grown from 57,000 people over the last year.

Attenborough Arts Centre is part of the University of Leicester’s Division of External Relations. Its new exhibition programme will significantly contribute to the University’s corporate social responsibility, wider public engagement and strategic research goals. It will specifically explore issues of human identity and inter-cultural interactions, promote inter-discipline, attract high-calibre collaborators, and encourage new imaginative approaches that culminate in exhibition projects.


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