From the late Mexican painter Frida Kahlo to Stevie Wonder the singer-songwriter, artists have challenged expectations of what people with disabilities can achieve. Art has a way of changing our perceptions of disability, providing a fresh and sometimes daring perspective on disability viewed through the lens of culture.
The biannual Unlimited Festival, originally part of the Cultural Olympiad for the London 2012 Olympics, is one of the biggest gatherings of artists with disabilities and audiences on an international scale. Together with events such as DaDaFest in Liverpool and DisArt in Michigan, the Unlimited Festival is part of a recent boom in disabled artistic voices in the international arts scene.
The Unlimited Festival aims to celebrate the artistic vision of artists with disabilities, embedding their work in the UK and international cultural sectors and reaching new audiences. “We don’t believe in operating in ghettos, but in exposing our artists to the level of ambition out there,” said Unlimited’s senior producer Jo Verrent.
Here are some contemporary artists whose take on disabilities have inspired powerful art.
1. Jess Thom
Theatre artist Jess Thom has Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition that affects her mobility and causes her to make movements and noises she can’t control. Because of her tics, she says the word “biscuit” uncontrollably thousands of times a day.
While attending a live performance led to Thom being moved, humiliated and frustrated, into the sound booth. But the incident also sparked off her artistic journey to the stage. She now holds her own solo comedy performance that celebrates creativity while shedding light on the often-misunderstood affliction of Tourette’s.
2. Aidan Moesby
As an artist and writer, much of Aidan Moesby’s work is concerned with language and the exploration of the weather as a metaphor for happiness and comfort. A recent interactive installation, “Barometer of Wellbeing,” charts the well-being of the residents of Dundee as a “Periodic Table of Emotions,” with the “elements” flashing when words are hash-tagged on Twitter.
3. Daniel Savage
A visual arts photographer based in Canberra, Australia, Daniel Savage often employs his individual experience of disability and life in general as a point of difference for engage audiences in reassessing established ideas in society. One of his works, “No Offense, But…” is a series of photo portraits, in which individuals wear T-shirts that directly confront the viewer with the language of labels and perception.
In another series “Dis-place”, Savage uses wildlife taxidermy as a metaphor for the position of people with disabilities in contemporary Australian society.
4. Claire Cunningham
A multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer based in Glasgow, Claire Cunningham was born with osteoporosis. She has a unique performance style that integrates crutches in her aerial choreography and acting . Her body of works have been critically acclaimed for their humorously and intelligently challenging to the issues of aesthetics and dance.
5. Jane Gauntlett
Jane Gauntlett is a writer for film and theatre who uses virtual reality to push the boundaries of storytelling. Gauntlett suffered a traumatic brain injury after she was violently mugged and fell into a coma, affecting her ability to communicate and remember.
Her project “In My Shoes” teaches audiences to empathise with others, including those with brain injury. Using first-person documentary, audio-visual technology and virtual reality, she recreates real life immersive experiences that go beyond the traditional theatre performance.