BY Jamila Prowse in Opinion | 16 APR 24

Shape Arts Wants You to ‘Look Up to the Power of Crip’

The exuberant history of resistance by the Disability Arts Movement gets a historic review in Venice

BY Jamila Prowse in Opinion | 16 APR 24

The typical portrayal of disability in society, and more specifically in art and culture, is often a story of erasure and marginalization. Those of us who live with disabilities day to day are firmly acquainted with the challenges of negotiating a world that was not built for us and which, for the most part, tends to overlook or deny our existence altogether. ‘Crip Arte Spazio’, the disability-focused pavilion organised by Shape Arts for this year’s Venice Biennale, tells a different story. (The name references ‘crip’, a word for a disabled person with sometimes-pejorative connotations, is now defiantly and joyfully reclaimed by some.) The pavilion takes as its starting point the Disability Arts Movement, which developed in 1970s Britain and aligned creativity and activism as tools to campaign for the civil rights of disabled people. Having not been selected as an official Collateral Event at the Biennale, Shape Art’s pavilion came about after years of pitching Arts Council England for funding, embodying the ‘kick the doors in’ mentality of assertive self-representation inherent to the disability arts movement.

Crip Arts Spazio _ DAM in Venice
Crip Arte Spazio – Damn in Venice, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: CREA; photograph: Andy Barker Photography

As David Hevey, pavilion curator and CEO of Shape Arts tells me, ‘I think the significance of the Disability Arts Movement [receiving] a historic review at the largest venue in the art world [is clear]; but also theres a disruptive attitude.’ Outside the host venue, CREA Cantieri Del Contemporaneo, visitors will be greeted by Jason Wilsher-Mills’s overtly vivd sculptures, known as ‘Argonauts’. Challenging the association of disability with the greyscale of mobility shops – stores found across the UK, home to the colourless mobility aids to which disabled folk have long been accustomed – his creations exude a friendly, fun air and have been described by the artist as ‘I, Daniel Blake meets The Beano. Intricate illustrations adorn the bodies of the Argonauts with text, symbols and motifs attesting to personal stories, both his own and those collated from disabled communities across the UK. Wilsher-Mills’s ‘Argonauts’ embody what Hevey describes as ‘exuberant resistance,’ noting how the underlying tone of the Disability Arts Movement animates it as ‘empowering, even if you lose.’

Installation photograph of part of an exhibition in a gallery space with brick walls and concrete floors. On the left wall, seven enlarged photo negative reels are displayed in a line covering the large brick wall and extending across the floor below. At the back of the space, suspended from the high ceilings is a large textile banner in blue and yellow with bright red and white text that reads ‘CRIP ARTE SPAZIO THE DISABILITY ARTS MOVEMENT IN VENICE’. In the middle of the space is a small glass cabinet with multiple thin metal legs.
Crip Arte Spazio – Damn in Venice, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: Shape Arts; photograph: Andy Barker

Upon entering the main exhibition space, the eye is drawn to a multilayering of colourful archival materials. Historic images of the Disability Arts Movement, including protest images, are displayed atop enlarged rolls of photographic negatives, cascading from the ceiling to the floor. The Shape Arts pavilion, also known as ‘DAM in Venice’, highlights the contributions of disabled artists who have helped change society, from the rise of the movement in the 1970s to the ratification of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (later superseded by the 2010 Equality Act) and beyond. The Disability Arts Movement was, in Hevey’s words, one of the ‘most successful political art movements in the world, because it helped realise rights.’ Drawing attention to this history is a key aim of the pavilion.

Fundamental to the success of the movement was its capacity to pair art-making with modes of protest to create a visual language for resistance. As a starting point, Hevey was drawn to underlining the intrinsic link between art and protest at the heart of the movement, recounting how ‘back in the day’ demonstrations were not dry or dull: ‘there was comedy, slogans and banners.’ To familiarise viewers with this context, DAM in Venice is artfully bordered by large textile banners and appliqué text that mirror the aesthetics of protest which, as Hevey puts it, ‘feel[s] joyous and alive’.

Photograph of work installed in a gallery space, hung on a grey brick wall. The work consists of various parts of wheelchairs combined into the shape of Great Britain. In the foreground, big structures with red wooden panelling creep in from the left of frame.
Tony Heaton, Great Britain from a Wheelchair (1994), installation view. Crip Arte Spazio – Damn in Venice, 60th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: Shape Arts; photograph: Andy Barker

The pavilion, however, doesn’t dwell solely on memorialization of the past. Alongside works by established artists Tony Heaton and Tanya Raabe-Webber, DAM in Venice also showcases a new generation of crip artists, including Abi Palmer and Jameisha Prescod. On Black Pain (2022) by Prescod is a film essay that tells the stories of three Black people living with chronic conditions, identifying connections to the colonial roots of Western medicine, which propagated the myth that Black people have a uniquely high pain threshold, a callous justification for enacting violence which has evolved into the contemporary dismissal of Black pain. Prescod presents a route to articulation through the film which she recounts as coming ‘full circle by allowing Black people to speak about their pain for themselves, something enslaved African people didn't have the privilege of doing.’

Palmer’s short film series ‘Abi Palmer Invents the Weather’ (2023) shares the same collaborative approach as Prescod’s work, yet treads an altogether different terrain; her creative partners are her cats. From her South London home, Palmer contends with social isolation and climate grief by constructing highly decorated, cardboard box sets which her cats enter to experience weather simulations. By exhibiting the expansive potential of the imagination to change our environment, Palmer hopes ‘a few people leave [the exhibition] understanding that the capacity to access and roam freely across this very beautiful and diverse planet should not be taken for granted’.

Both films will be displayed on large screens, suspended from the ceiling, a choice which Hevey explains encourages viewers to look up: ‘Looking down at the poor cripple has been a long-[held] able-bodied norm, but looking up at the power [of] crip is an interesting position.’ The decision is just one example of a thoughtful approach across the pavilion which includes alt-text, audio description, a screen dedicated solely to subtitles and the use of a venue that provides complete flat access from the water bus through to the gallery floor – no easy feat in a city full of canals and narrow pathways. One of Heaton’s most iconic artworks, Great Britain from a Wheelchair (1994), evokes the theme of access. The sculpture represents a map of Britain created by manipulating two grey wheelchairs, their contorted shapes an evocation of the social model of disability which considers environmental restrictions and attitudinal barriers to be disabling, rather than the capacities of any individual.

As Heaton reminds me, ‘the Disability Arts Movement developed alongside the fight for disability rights, so fighting for access was fundamental to the struggle.’ Hevey informs me that, venue aside, the inaccessibility of the city at large meant there was a debate about whether Venice was even an appropriate location for the show. After a thorough access audit, the decision was eventually made to go ahead because, as Hevey puts it, ‘if you are outside of culture, you need to kick the door in to be at the top table.’

Main image: Crip Arte Spazio – Damn in Venice, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: Shape Arts; photograph: Andy Barker

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher. She holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. Prowse has written for frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.