We move together,
with no body left behind
When you’re non-disabled, a comfortable place to sit down is not something that you spend much time worrying about. You probably wouldn’t even think about it until you needed it and it wasn’t there. Living with my disabilities (which include arthritis), a place to sit down becomes the difference between going out or staying home. A comfortable place to sit down means I can take part, without being in chronic pain. Over the past few years, accessibility has been gaining attention, but it is still predominantly exemplified by well-meaning and partial gestures that leave disabled people feeling like a burden. The provision of a ramp but no wheelchair accessible bathroom. Sliding doors that are too heavy for swollen hands or fatigued muscles to move. A discourse around mental health but no space for neurodiverse minds to gain some respite. Captioning that lags behind speech. Forgetting a sign language interpreter. Accessibility is often not accessible. Access is just a starting point.
Disability justice is more than access. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice that ‘disability justice centres sick and disabled people of colour, queer and trans disabled folks of colour, and everyone who is marginalized in mainstream disability organizing’.1 Disability justice prioritises an understanding of disability that is not based in the narratives of lack or difficulty that typify mainstream disability conversations. Rather, firmly grounded in liberation, disability justice frames this mainstream perception of disability as inherently bound to anti-Black, racist, Christian supremacist, colonialist, sexist, queerphobic and transphobic oppression. Disability justice seeks to organise from an ethos of interdependency and desire, of abundance and love.
The exhibition VISABILITY is disability justice. It’s important for me to position myself and why I am saying this. I am a white, transgender, disabled person. It is rare to find representations of disability as more than an impediment, something to be hidden or pushed through — inspiration porn. In so-called Australia, disability and transgender representation is almost always white, middle-class and concerned with a respectability politics. VISABILITY goes entirely against these normative representations. Curated by Pauline Vetuna and Hannah Morphy-Walsh, the exhibition first ran from 27 November 2019 – 26 January 2020 at the Wyndham Art Gallery. It featured works by nine disabled artists who are mostly Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and many of whom are queer, trans or gender nonconforming, of varying ages and cultural backgrounds. The exhibition included a wide range of mediums and styles. A formative theme of the show was intersectionality; co-curator Hannah told me what this show meant to them:
VISABILITY was about being able to do things within the disability ‘community’, as it’s often called, to support other disabled artists, particularly artists that do not suffer from afflictions such as whiteness or masculinity. It was important that the show was really focused on disabled people of colour because, as @ HijaDe2Madre coined, disability is an intersection; another reason people have to exclude and oppress members of their own community.
Co-curator Pauline went on to explain:
Getting to curate VISABILITY was particularly important to me as someone who is developing a socially engaged arts practice without institutional training and within a community context, as a grassroots member of the community I seek to work with. Hannah and I, knowing the unique challenges of living at the axes of multiple oppressions, knew that we had to centre BIPOC and queer and trans emerging artists with disabilities in particular. We understand intimately that folks such as ourselves are pushed to the margins of every community we belong to. We therefore couldn’t curate an exhibition that explored ableism and its opposite without prioritising intersectionality, which is reflected in the artists we chose to approach for VISABILITY. Intersectionality is integral to disability justice, which to me is all about ensuring liberation for all disabled people and, by extension, all people.
More than simply challenging ableist perceptions, VISABILITY was about looking elsewhere. Disabled artists spoke to their own experiences for other disabled people, rather than for a non-disabled audience. I felt this upon entering the space, which was set up with comfortable chairs, accessible bathrooms, on the ground level (the stairs were cordoned off as a statementon access), with audio transcriptions and catering. This was amplified by the sense of ceremony captured in the opening images. A collaborative series of lifesize photos based on the tarot, by queer Black and POC artists Leilani Fuimaono and Ngino Amum, presented Amum sitting regal and majestic in her wheelchair, clothed in bright dresses with jewels adorning her body, surrounded by colourful printed cloth, plants and bowls, candlesticks and lamps. Leilani told me about making the work:
The importance of framing POC (but specifically Black) queer disability through the lens of power and divinity and magic is vital for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of other disabled BIPOC. BIPOC identities can’t be defined by white supremacy or the white lens, and so disabled identities and disabled art can’t just be about reframing things so that able- bodied people can understand them, or white people, or whatever. It’s really about us and how we feel about our own selves. This photo series was for us, for Ngino, to feel herself, to be in her power and for me, it was about creating the space and comfort for that to come through and to exude naturally. We made this for us and for every other disabled BIPOC struggling with their own internalised and externalised stuff.
The self-portraiture and origami of Ibby Ibrahim, an artist in the ArtLife program at Footscray Community Arts Centre, gold metal star IBBYMAN (2019) and Wolverine (2019), vibrated with celebration and magic. As Lucy Buxton, the lead engagement worker for Footscray Arts relayed to me from their Auslan conversation, for Ibby:
wearing his Wolverine origami costume makes him feel strong and as though he can perform and fight like Wolverine. Wearing this costume is like directing a movie, where Ibby plays Wolverine and takes a role in helping all of the other characters in his imagination.
Similarly, Yolngu artist Annie Moor’s painting Self Portrait (2019) articulated a sense of pride in identity and heritage, her colours and brushstrokes combined in a bold self-expressive and emotional visual language. This attentiveness to expression on one’s own terms ran equally through Jasmin Âû’s work Karaihe (2019). A copper wire and mixed media installation, it seeks to capture Jasmin’s experiences of autism and identity. The curves of light and wire — golden and glowing within and around map-like shapes, words and symbols — illustrate just how important it is to pay attention to the spaces in between, because they are necessary and profound. As Jasmin told me:
I love being neurodiverse. The very thought that there could be so many unique minds and ways to experience humanity is beautiful to me. One of my favorite things about being autistic is that I rarely get bored. Sensory-wise, the world is very intense and overwhelming. This can be really hard but also on the bright side (no pun intended) everything is a bit of an experience.
The primacy of love, of self-determination, of community and of liberation was testified to in Ruby Allegra’s ink and digital illustration pieces Icons (2019), Ode to my Wheelchair (2019), Un-Bound (2019) and Protest (2019). A white queer, disabled, transgender (non-binary) artist and writer, Allegra speaks with humour and rage through fluorescent colours, direct words, line drawings and elegant shading. Writing to me about their practice, Allegra noted:
I exist in my disabled, trans body in a world which medicalises, desexualises and objectifies disabled, trans bodies. Society has been conditioned to equate disability with pain, grief, shame, sadness and worthlessness; things we’re taught to fear and avoid. In a society which seeks to eradicate bodies like mine, a society which is repulsed, disturbed and afraid of bodies like mine, the practice of romancing, sexualising, holding and celebrating my disabled trans body on my own terms and with autonomy, agency and consent, is exquisitely revolutionary. To celebrate bodies which are not heralded as ‘the epitome’ — BIPOC, fat, disabled, transgender, queer — is a revolutionary ‘fuck you’ to systems and perpetuators of oppression.
All of these works sang with playfulness and joy. They demonstrated that making stories on our own terms is more than simply refusing the conditions set out by colonial logics. Moving beyond comparisons between abled as good versus disabled as bad — to existing as whole and as beautiful — is fundamental to disability justice.
Turning away from comparison, however, does not mean flattening the myriad experiences that disabled people live through. Trauma and care over years, alone or with others, highlights why so much of disability justice is about interdependence — the recognition that we are all entangled with each other and with the world. In Fijian artist Mereani Qalovakawasa’s video series Makeup is Meditation (2017), the artist puts on and takes off makeup and brushes her hair. The daily rituals and practices of self-care are elevated to counter the fear and shame of chronic illness. Mereani states that, for her,
combining both the arts and my health journey has helped me process a lot of trauma. My videos help me reflect and give me perspective on how far I’ve come. And because of that awareness I’ve gained, I know not to be too hard on myself if I have a difficult health day. I’ve come through a lot and I’m trying my best.
Trauma is also dealt with by Dawn Iris Dangkomen in Broken/ Mirror (2019), using collage and prose to reflect on the ways in which imaginaries of white normality and neurotypicality shape and oppress the lives of disabled and queer people of colour. Dawn observed that representation of experiences of invisible disabilities is complex, ‘just like it is to represent a queer person of colour; there’s only so many visual short-hands, and if misused they can seem hollow and inauthentic.’ By taking an ‘eclectic approach to art’ Dawn tries ‘to represent that oft- unseen complexity in ways that are true to myself, but that speak for our collective trauma and resilience too.’ The navigation of pain and trauma within community and friendship is addressed by Leilani Fuimaono and morag 17 undulatingroses in their mixed media installation 11:55 (2019). Through several sculptures made of broken glass and silver wire they narrate a friendship over five years, their experiences of racism and ableism, chronic illness, neurodiversity, complex trauma and vulnerability, long- distance care and reunions. As Leilani explained, the fractured mirror speaks to ‘themes of distorted memory/feelings through C-PTSD. How trauma distorts our memories and identities.’ The work, they write, is about ‘the hurt, the pain, the immense and unconditional, resilient and deep love and intimacy that only disabled folk can have for one another.’
The sharing and care that VISABILITY exemplifies is echoed in the words of Pauline Vetuna when they say: ‘disabled people who are BIPOC, queer and trans do need each other: for community, solidarity, camaraderie, survival ... and love.’ A few nights before the exhibition opening, I received a message telling me there would be chairs to sit down on. I was overcome with a deep relief. Because I knew these wouldn’t be hard benches or stools, but chairs comfortable for bodies wracked with pain. Too often, non-disabled people do not consider what a disabled person might need to enter a room, participate in a space, stay and take part rather than leave on arrival. When disabled, BIPOC, queer and trans artists organise and create environments, they do so with the attention and generosity required for those who are often invisible to become visible and, more than that, centred and celebrated. For access to be accessible it has to be more than an afterthought. Disability justice shows us that access is just the beginning to making sure that no one, no body, is left behind. As Sins Invalid put it their ‘10 Principles of Disability Justice’:
disability justice is a vision and practice of yet- to-be, a map that we create with our ancestors and our great-grandchildren onward, in the width and depth of our multiplicities and histories, a movement towards a world in which every body and every mind is known as beautiful.2
VISABILITY, 27 November 2019 – 31 January 2020, Wyndham Art Gallery, Werribee, Victoria.
Anja Kanngieser (PhD) is a writer, researcher and radio maker based in Naarm/Melbourne.