It’s time the arts scene made inclusivity a top priority

Fall Arts Guide | Gregory Beatty | October 7, 2021

When most people think of disabled people doing art, they perhaps think of art therapy, where the focus is on health and well-being.

But there’s another side to disabled art — a professional side, and often an activist one, with disabled artists part of a broader civil rights push for greater accessibility and inclusion in society. There are historical parallels with the feminist, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous rights movements, where artists played a two-pronged role: critiquing the dominant culture that oppressed them, and repping their own history, culture and identity to counter negative stereotypes.

As with most social movements these days, Saskatchewan is behind the curve when it comes to promoting disabled rights. But awareness is growing — and just as elsewhere, artists are part of the movement.

Together and Apart

Independent productions and collaborations with existing organizations on special projects are two ways disabled artists work—which, really, isn’t particularly different from how abled artists work. Queer City Cinema 2019 is one recent example. Its theme was “Bad(Ass) Bodies” and disabled artists were front and centre, presenting work that confronted societal stigmas against bodies viewed as defective, burdensome and even dangerous.

“Statistically, people say they would rather die than be disabled,” says Listen To Dis’ theatre’s artistic director Traci Foster. “That’s the conversation that happens in our lives and when we’re performing. We’re very aware of the stigma, and it’s our position that it’s everyone’s right to be in their body — and be in it as it is, not as someone else deems it should be.”

Listen To Dis’ is a Saskatchewan collective formed to create opportunities for talented people with disabilities and raise awareness generally. It goes back to the mid-2000s, although the group’s official founding didn’t happen until 2014, says Foster.

“I was invited to teach a Devising Inclusive Theatre class with Kathleen Irwin at University of Regina,” Foster recalls. “With the six students we had, we created a show over three months called Neither Heroes Nor Ordinary People. After it showed, which was really our only plan, it was picked up by the Cathedral Village Arts Festival. That started the theatre company.”

From those humble beginnings, Listen To Dis’ has grown into a modest-sized operation that creates and performs original work, offers workshops and other professional development opportunities, and does outreach with a wide range of non-disabled organizations in Saskatchewan.

“When we meet we’re always bringing forward articles and ideas about accessibility, so we do inform ourselves about the movement and how and where it started in the 1970s,” says Foster.

When Covid struck in March 2020, Listen To Dis’ was about to embark on a two-month tour of its latest production Mine To Have which addresses disability, sexuality and relationships. Cancelling the tour, which was to have included stops in Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Swift Current, Moose Jaw and Regina, was a disappointment, says Foster. For now, the company is restricted to operating online. They’re also finishing a film about Mine To Have, and doing radio productions of that show and Neither Heroes.

Plans are also in the works to start a youth company in Saskatoon. Listen To Dis’ artists even have an idea for a third show, says Foster. “It will look at darker aspects of living with disability relative to the institution and statistics around death and poverty.”

Body Politics

Visual artists are part of the disabled rights movement, too. And south of the border, Amanda Cachia is making a name for herself as a curator of disabled art. Cachia was born and raised in Australia, but she does have a Saskatchewan connection, as before moving to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her Masters in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, she spent three years as head curator at the Dunlop Gallery in Regina.

When she arrived in San Francisco, she recalled during a 2018 return visit to Regina where she spoke at the MacKenzie Gallery, she was struck by the vibrancy of the disabled community. As a self-described dwarf activist, she saw an opportunity to engage with the community and begin curating exhibitions by disabled artists exploring different themes.

Cachia’s fourth exhibition was held in San Diego in 2014 and addressed her own disability. The show was titled Composing Dwarfism: Reframing Short Stature In Contemporary Photography, and it coincided with a Little People of America convention in the city.

“Historically, images of dwarfs have been really reductive,” Cachia said. “They’re often in the nude, or somehow depicted as circus performers. So I thought ‘What would happen if there was a dwarf behind the camera? How would they depict images of dwarf bodies, and even themselves?’”

Language is part of the struggle too. And like earlier civil rights movements, Cachia noted, the disabled community has reclaimed a word that had previously hurt and demeaned them: “crip”, which is a reclaimed variation of “cripple”.

“For those familiar with disability studies, ‘crip’ is an empowering term,” Cachia said in her talk. “And ‘crip time’ means a slowing down of time, because usually it takes a disabled person longer to get from point A to point B.”

Sometimes, that might be due to their disability. But other times, it’s due to accessibility barriers. Think about booking a trip on our woefully underfunded paratransit service versus the (relative) convenience of regular transit, or having to enter a building through a makeshift side door or loading ramp because the main entrance has steep steps or some other challenge. It’s all time lost and aggravation gained.

Ultimately, even the very notion of disability is being contested, Cachia said.

Disabilities come in many different forms and degrees, and people’s attitudes to them vary widely. Some artists are comfortable with the label “disabled”, while others reject it. As a curator, Cachia now favours the more nuanced term “complex embodiment” to reflect the range of physical, psychological and cognitive terrain covered.

Listen & Learn

Many arts and culture organizations are strategizing on how they can become more inclusive in both their programming and in the audience they attract. [see sidebar]

While their intentions may be laudable, they need to ensure the engagement is an honest one. Cachia drove that point home with an anecdote about a 2016 exhibition in Berkeley that featured work by 25 to 30 intellectually or mentally disabled artists.

“Unfortunately, the curators decided they weren’t going to interview the artists or have any other engagement with them,” she said. “When the community found out, they were outraged. The curators said ‘Well, they can’t speak. How can we engage with them?’”

When institutions are looking to work with the disabled, said Cachia, the number one thing they need to do is consult with them. “That’s why the Berkeley project went so wrong. The curators didn’t do their homework, and the show blew up in flames.”

In Saskatchewan, Listen To Dis’ does a lot of consulting and partnership work, says Foster. And sometimes, she admits it can be frustrating.

“In many cases, they’ve proven to be quite exhausting because the education we have to do with people who might feel they understand access because they have a disabled friend or they’ve read up on it is very difficult for people who meet those barriers every day in their lives.”

But work is being done and important progress is being made. Important, because whether we want to admit it or not, most of us are one day destined to become members of the disabled community.

“Disabled people are everywhere,” says Foster. “It’s the only culture that we’ll all become part of at some point in our lives. By proxy of age or illness, the only thing that will change that reality is if someone dies before they grow older or have their health interrupted by illness.” 


Work In Progress

Installation of Provisional Structures (Carmen Papalia with Vo Vo and jes sachse, photo: Don Hall)

Artists and collectives producing art on disabled themes is only one part of the equation. They also need places to display and perform their work, and access to the same public supports that non-disabled artists and organizations have.

In recent years, both Canada Council for the Arts and Saskatchewan Arts Board have created programs to fund disabled arts activity.

At the institutional level, many organizations are reviewing their approach to accessibility and unveiling updated policies. To celebrate its new policy, the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina even organized an exhibition which is on display until Oct. 17. Provisional Structures is the title, and it features work by Carmen Papalia, Vo Vo and jes sachse.

Curator Nicolle Nugent says the initial spark for the show was a talk she heard Papalia give at a gallery educators conference in Vancouver.

“Then about eight months later I got an e-mail from [a colleague] saying, ‘My friend Carmen is coming to town, do you want to do some programming with him?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’, so he did an eyes-closed tour of an exhibition.”

Nugent participated in the tour with a local artist/friend describing the art and the space they were moving through. She found it transformative.

“I realized that as an educator and curator, I’d been privileging the visual in everything, and that there are other ways of thinking about engagement and experience and the way we connect to one another.”

That led to a standing invitation for Papalia to do an annual workshop. While in Regina, he’d also meet with gallery staff to talk about accessibility.

“We talked a lot about how we care for other people, and about not making assumptions about their needs,” says Nugent. “Instead, we should allow people to state their own needs. That’s tricky, because for me, I just wanted to help. But Carmen said it can be harmful when we make assumptions about what other people need.”

Last year, the MacKenzie formed an Equity Task Force with the goal of producing an equity statement. The process included monthly meetings with Papalia, along with consultations and feedback from elder-in-residence Betty McKenna and other community friends until a final statement was arrived at.

In many ways, Provisional Structures embodies the statement. It starts with the welcoming message written in plain English instead of more typical art jargon to help people understand better. There are also QR codes people can scan, and an app that delivers an audio reading with French and Urdu translations.

The dominant feature of Provisional Structures is a large wooden ramp co-designed by Papalia and Vancouver architect Michael Lis which winds upward in the gallery to a height of 10 metres.

“There’s a rich history of the ramp as an accessibility tool”, says Nugent. “We reference [Dutch architect] Rem Koolhaas in the curatorial statement, and his thoughts on the ramp as having the capacity for transformation.”

The ramp lets visitors experience the gallery from different perspectives. There’s a red string to guide you if you wish (a nod to Papalia’s status as a non-visual artist who is legally blind). But either way, the journey up and down is a little shaky as the ramp is sup[ported by scaffolding as at a construction site.

As the journey unfolds, there’s audio of a recent presentation on trauma-informed care that Vo Vo gave at a Disability Justice conference in Portland. The ramp also offers an elevated view of jes sachse’s installation, Take All the Time You Need, which consists of a grid of small brass plaques modeled after a donor wall.

Poverty rates among disabled people are notoriously high. Sachse’s plaques mock that sad reality, while also reminding us that donating money isn’t the only way people can contribute to society.

As a side project to Provisional Structures, Papalia guest-edited a special issue of the Saskatoon art magazine Blackflash. The issue features an interview with Papalia by Amanda Cachia, along with poems, stories, critical articles and photography on disabled themes.

“Provisional means the structure will come down at the end of the exhibition,” says Nugent. “But the fact it’s just scaffolding and not finished implies that accessibility is something we need to continue to work on.”