Guest Editorial – Disability Art and Culture: Of difficult questions and complex answers
By Shilpaa Anand & Nandini Ghosh
The aim of this issue was to present disabled artists’ conceptions of their art. This endeavour was undertaken keeping in mind that a disabled artist or a disabled writer’s work is received/ perceived in certain normative ways: in a paternalistic manner, the art may be attributed only to their disability; the Super Crip attitude that considers that the disabled artist has a talent using which he or she overcomes their disability; the artist’s disability may be hidden from the world under the assumption that they may not consider their disability as part of their individual identity.
The work collected here not only makes explicit how each artist thinks of their work in relation to disability but also presents before us a variety of struggles that exist in the way art is conceptualized in the light of disability and the way disability is framed in the context of artistic expression and creativity. While a lot of the disability art and culture that is visible on the internet comes from Euro-American contexts, any effort to consolidate art or literature under the category of disability is relatively new in the Indian context. Avinash Shahi’s entry in this collection echoes this need for an Indian category of disability art or for a separate recognition for disabled artists. This way of thinking of art by disabled people is relatively new and Shahi makes this explicit when he describes how artistic abilities of disabled people remains shrouded in a kind of secrecy. This is not dissimilar to the way in which disabled people in certain contexts are hidden away. It may also be the case that many disabled people engaged in creative enterprises shy away from the public gaze for fear of rejection or ridicule. However, works of art and writing presented here reveal different as well as contradictory opinions on the way in which disability art can be conceptualised and interpreted. This diversity, we hope, will convey, at least partially, the complexity involved in categorising certain pieces of art as disability art as well as the internal differences that constitute this category of disability art and culture. It is almost needless to state that we were overwhelmed by the responses we received to our call for entries for this issue of Café Dissensus and hope that discussions on disability art and culture continue to grow in all their diversity and complexity.
Jyothsna Phanija, a singer and a writer, prefers to identify as a writer because she feels that her perception as an artist is better accorded to her by her readers than by those who listen to her sing. As a musician, the focus of her audiences is on her disability and on the fact that she can sing, thus distracting them from the quality of her work. Common perceptions of certain disabilities and perceptions of the creative abilities of disabled artists determine how she chooses to express her creativity. In the poems by Sudam Pal and Barsha Bhattacharya, we witness the freedom that writing as a form of expression provides to people with cerebral palsy, a disability that is as visible as blindness or visual impairment.
Visual artists, Adarsh Baji and Raju Patel also comment on the relations between their roles or identities as artists and their roles or identities as disabled people as well. For Baji, his disability became a subject of his art work at a time when he was struggling to find a subject on which to practice his skills and techniques. The crutch he uses appears as a liet motif through his paintings, serving as oars in a boat in one instance, as an easel on which to lean his painting in another and always remaining, a part of him, as essential as a skeletal frame. For Raju Patel, similarly, his disability is not separate from him but a part of him, he’d rather think of differently shaped feet as a kind of difference rather than a disability. Patel thinks of his art as not “representing”disability but as presenting the subjectivity of disability. In the works of both artists thus disability emerges as an embodied phenomena, which is part of one’s existence and identity, and is manifested in their art.
Karunakar, a cartoonist, echoes Patel’s discomfort with being identified as disabled; both also have in common the experience of growing up believing that their artistic abilities were compensations for the disabilities they were born with. His cartoons seem to contain a sentiment that is similar to that of Baji in presenting assistive devices as extensions of the individual rather than as supportive devices that are attached to the body externally.
In the works of Partho Bhowmik and Prateeksha Sharma, we encounter that commonly prevalent idea that art can be therapeutic for disabled people, in the most uncommon ways. Bhowmik who trains visually impaired and blind people in photography, finds that acquiring this skill enables several blind photographers an opportunity to present the visual to the sighted world through their ears and touch. Best illustrated in Bhavesh Patel’s photos of his college environment, spaces that are familiar to sighted classmates appear unfamiliar through these photographs. Sharma’s musical practice doesn’t just work as therapy for her but allows her to transcend the world of diagnostic labels and behaviour interpretation that is so much a part of everyday lives of persons living with and those who have survived mental health systems.
A similar critique of psychiatric systems is evident in Reshma Valliappan’s (Val Resh) mime act. She uses the mime as a strategic way of expressing the voiceless predicament of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia in an abilist world. The voicelessness of the mime serves as a metaphor for the silencing of legal capacity that persons diagnosed with mental illnesses experience in their daily lives. Shefalee Jain’s drawings extend Val Resh’s critique of the institution, by critiquing medicine as a system of knowledge that colonizes and controls all information about disease and disability. Her drawings connect historic representations of monstrous figures with contemporary depictions of diseased bodies in medical text books to interrogate the many ways in which visual fields compose bodies affected by diseases and disablement as strange and unfamiliar others.
The video narrative by the Ankur advocacy group contributes to our discussion of disability art by employing a medium that best captures the experience of a person with cerebral palsy navigating a city as busy as Kolkata, and finally arriving into the embrace of affectionate and caring citizens. Work collected in this issue, brings together a variety of notions of disability as well as a disavowal of the concept while also destabilizing commonly held views of what it means to be artists in different artistic and creative realms. The works that come together in this issue reconfigure notions of freedom of expression, creativity, artistic intention, artistic voice in keeping with different disability experiences and chosen media of expression.
Dr. Shilpaa Anand teaches in the Department of English at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad. Her research is in the area of disability history and disability and culture. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Nandini Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. She has a Ph. D in Social Sciences from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the broad area of Gender and Disability Studies. She is engaged in research on issues of marginalisation and development from a gender, disability and development perspective. She also teaches qualitative research and sociology for M Phil courses in IDSK and is a guest lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Website: http://idsk.edu.in/nandini-ghosh/