DISrupting the arts in Leeds

Gill Crawshaw has been researching examples of disability arts in the Local and Family History Library as DISrupt, a collective of disabled artists, continues this legacy in Leeds. This article is published to mark next week’s International Day of Disabled People on 3 December, and Leeds’ own week of events, Leeds for All.

DISrupt, a collective of disabled artists in Leeds, recently launched our manifesto. DISrupt started because we want to make sure that disabled artists get the recognition that they deserve. Our members are making original, ambitious, exciting work, and we want to shout about that!

We recognise the important work that many organisations in the city are doing to support disabled artists and to encourage disabled people to be creative. But we believe there is also a need for an organisation made up entirely of disabled artists which focuses on the work we produce and that gives disabled artists a voice. We will use this voice to make the arts more accessible and inclusive, and that includes working in partnership with anyone who shares this aim, particularly local arts organisations.

DISrupt is inspired by and proud to be part of the disability arts movement and we want to continue this legacy in Leeds. With this in mind, I have started to research what has gone before, with a view to creating a disability arts timeline for Leeds. This would focus on artistic activity organised and carried out by disabled artists: exhibitions, festivals, plays and cabarets. Although records of many of these events are patchy, to say the least.

A search through the Local and Family History Library catalogue reveals copies of annual reports of Yorkshire and Humberside Arts (YHA) from the 1990s, and of its predecessor, Yorkshire Arts, established in 1986. These regional arts boards were responsible for funding and developing the arts, so it is good to find references to disability in their reports. How much of the work they funded went directly to disabled artists or to organisations that were controlled by disabled people is questionable, however.

In 1993 Yorkshire and Humberside Arts published the Regional Arts and Disability Guide, compiled by Wendy Robson, a disabled artist. This included information on access, employment, equipment and training, sources of funding and information, plus a directory of organisations ‘involved in projects with / for people with a disability’. There are plenty of familiar Leeds organisations: Heads Together, Interplay, Pavilion, Red Ladder, Skippko and Vera Productions are all still going, some with a slight name change. Meanwood Park Arts Club, which went on to become Pyramid, is also included.

Pyramid and Interplay continue to support learning disabled artists. The other organisations showed a commitment to including disabled people in their work, with the occasional disability-focused project.

Looking through the YHA annual reports, I spot a mention of inclusive organisation Musical Arc from 1994. But I’m most excited to come across three striking and powerful photographs of disabled women in the annual report of 1992/93.

Front cover of the Regional Arts & Disability Guide for Yorkshire and Humberside
(c) Leeds Libraries

These images were produced by Click, a group of disabled women photographers based at Armley Resource Centre. As part of the Access to Image project they exhibited life-sized images of disabled women, accompanied by bold slogans such as ‘Disabled people are lesbian and gay’ and ‘Don’t talk down to me’.

(c) Leeds Libraries

This is what I’m after: strong and uncompromising work by disabled artists which reflects their experiences of disability. In the early days of the disability arts movement, in the 1980s and 90s, this was how disabled people defined disability art. It was very much an expression of being disabled. It was political, part of the wider disabled people’s movement.

Disabled artists and activists wanted to make the distinction between disability art and art made by disabled artists that wasn’t about disability, or art by non-disabled artists where disabled people were the subject.

I dipped into the archive of Leeds Other Paper (LOP), also available in the reference library. If I was to find anything about disability arts as a political movement, LOP would surely be the place.

One of the first articles I came across was actually something I wrote for the paper, published on 11 May 1990. I’d spoken to Maggie Hampton of Graeae theatre company, who had visited Leeds with their latest production, about their place in the disability arts movement. She said, “We can’t fail to be political, we’re very much a part of that, by advocating theatre by rather than for disabled people. Graeae has a commitment to be outspoken about issues concerning disabled people, to be demanding, speaking for ourselves.”

Three people acting on a stage
(c) Leeds Libraries

On 27 July 1990, Alison Theaker reviewed an exhibition called ‘A Passing Traveller’. This was a series of photographs documenting the life of a disabled man named Bernard Brett. He is shown travelling, visiting friends, working at a housing association, just living and being part of a community. Theaker writes “They are not sad, nor mawkish, nor brave or heroical” which is excellent to read. It’s not stated whether the photographer was a disabled person, but it seems clear that Brett fully and willingly collaborated on this project. Is it ‘disability art’ though?

There is no question that the Independence Festival was disability art. A national celebration of disabled people’s lives and culture, it was held in Leeds in 2001, a major event on the timeline. The festival centred on an all-day event in August of performances and workshops on the recently opened Millennium Square, with other events throughout the year. In October Leeds International Film Festival supported the Independence Festival with a selection of films on the theme of independence and disability. This is listed in the film festival’s catalogue, part of a series in the Local and Family History Library.

As time has gone on, the definition of disability art, and people’s understanding of the term, has broadened and become more inclusive of a greater diversity of disabled artists, definitely a positive development. Some people say that any artwork by a disabled artist, whatever the subject, cannot fail to reflect their experiences of being disabled people, so disability art need not be explicitly about disability. DISrupt welcomes all disabled artists who relate to our manifesto, whether their work addresses disability or not.

So, back to the timeline of disability arts in Leeds. I’ll certainly return to the reference library’s Leeds Other Paper archive to see what else they covered. I’m hoping to find references to cabarets at the Playhouse and Leeds University Union, amongst other things. And I’ll be casting the net wider, talking to disabled artists and people who might remember other notable events. If you can help, I’d love to hear from you.

Drop me a line at disruptartistscollective@gmail.com – and of course, get in touch if you’re interested in DISrupt and would like to find out more.

Gill Crawshaw

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