A Venice Show Centers Disability Justice

VENICE — The 60th Venice Biennale’s theme of “Foreigners Everywhere” includes a number of communities historically overlooked in art, like folks from queer, indigenous, and immigrant backgrounds. While disability does appear in specific works of art, it’s not a major presence. So I was pleased to learn about Crip Arte Spazio, an exhibition about the Disability Arts Movement (DAM), which started in the 1970s in the UK to advocate for the rights of disabled people, at CREA Cantieri del Contemporaneo in Giudecca.

The entrance to Crip Arte Spazio declares that it’s the first international exhibition of DAM, which makes it an exciting milestone for both art and disability justice. The title means “Crip Art Space,” and among many disabled communities, “crip” is used as a reclaimed slur. 

Importantly, Shape Arts, the show’s producing organization, is informed by the Social Model of Disability, which they explain on their site:

The Social Model holds that a person isn’t “disabled” because of their impairment, health condition, or the ways in which they may differ from what is commonly considered the medical “norm”; rather it is the physical and attitudinal barriers in society — prejudice, lack of access adjustments and systemic exclusion — that disable people. To say that someone is “just different” or “differently-abled” ignores the fact that they face these disabling barriers created by society, and implies that they do not experience discrimination, and that society does not need to change to become more accessible and inclusive.

This definition is essential for understanding the show, which overall reads more like an examination of society’s relationship to disability than one of disability itself.

One such example is Jason Wilsher-Mills’s “I Am Argonaut,” a large fiberglass and acrylic sculpture of a human figure adorned with bright neon colors and bat ears. The designs on the body are asymmetrically aligned, the left and right having different features and patterns. As the exhibition text explains, the work is “a response to first becoming disabled over the course of puberty.” Medical professionals thought he was going to die young due to a blood condition, and he suffered from humiliating and inconsiderate treatment. The figure looks exposed, vulnerable, and mistreated.

I looked more closely at the work, which contains written statements based on milestones in the artist’s life. The entry for 1980 discusses the artist’s exposure to chicken pox: “I was paralysed from the neck downwards. The battle raged in my body for 5 years…and continues to this day.” Another entry recounts that “When I was 13 years old I was required to have an IQ test because all disabled children had to have one.”

“Shaken Not Stirred” by Tony Heaton OBE steps away from the body entirely to look at the social context: a pyramid of red plastic donation cans. A few of them have a sticker reading “Rights for Disabled People Now!” The original work was part of the 1990s Block Telethon protests organized by DAM, which resisted a culture of charity and pity toward people with disabilities. In the original installation, Heaton smashed the pyramid with a prosthetic leg, but in the current show, the pyramid remains intact (for now).

Across the exhibition, graphic novel illustrations by Simon Roy guide viewers through some of the major themes in the show and important figures in the movement. At the entrance, for instance, comedian and activist Barbara Liscicki holds a bazooka while pointing out that DAM “fought barriers, changed the law, and made great art about their struggles!” In another scene, writer, producer, and composer Debs Williams pushes a police officer away during a direct action where activists chained themselves to buses: “It was an accessible society that disabled us, not the crip body.”

Venice itself serves as a living example of the social model of disability. By one estimate, more than 50% of Venice is accessible, yet most of its famous bridges lack ramps and stair assists. But in 2021, the city began investing in accessibility improvements. As Heaton said in a CNN article: “If Venice can do it, everywhere can do it. It just needs political will.”

And while the show is not officially part of the Biennale’s collateral events, its very presence in Venice is a statement. Crip Arte Spazio is timed to occur roughly on the same dates as the Biennale, meaning international visitors to the city are much more likely to go see the art on display. The show can also be viewed online, through a website with images of the works alongside audio descriptions (though strangely there are not many images for each piece). 

These details highlight the importance of a show like this: it is as much a record of history as it is an art exhibition. Power concedes nothing without a demand, and the tireless efforts of DAM deserve both recognition and celebration. The show itself, awash in color and light, is a testament to the decades-long efforts of disability justice advocates. 

Tanya Raabe-Webber’s Who’s Who Series captures major disabled activists affiliated with DAM. The paintings depict exaggerated facial features, while only some people have visible disabilities. And Raabe Webber’s “Self Portrait Triptych” shows the artist’s nude body composed of three separate paintings. “Webber’s body has all the same parts as a typical woman,” notes the exhibition text, “but perhaps combined in different ways.”

In “Abi Palmer Invents the Weather,” visitors peer into a video within a cardboard box. The video shows the artist creating environments for her cats during COVID lockdown so that they could both experience seasons. Charmingly, Palmer narrates the cats’ perspective. It’s a message that applies equally to a cat during COVID and to many navigating their way in an ableist world: “I felt safe in my den. No matter how strange and dark it gets in this deep, dense forest, others have passed before us…. It felt like I was protected. It felt like you are not alone.”

Crip Arte Spazio is organized by David Hevey and produced by Shape Arts. The show is on view at CREA Cantieri del Contemporaneo (211/B, 30133, Sestiere Dorsoduro, Guidecca, Venezia) until November 30, 2024. 

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