3 DECEMBER 2014 JU GOSLING AKA ju90 WRITES: Today was a very special day, being International Day of Disabled People (and the reason why, in addition to World AIDS Day on 1 December, Disability History Month takes place at this time of the year). The Day was created by the UN in 1992, at the end of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992), as a way of ensuring that the needs and rights of disabled people would be remembered at least once a year. (Which reminds me of the Disability Rights T-shirt slogan: ‘To boldly go where everyone else has already gone before’.)
What made today very special indeed for us is that we were able to connect via the internet with our new friends in China, which of course was the Paralympic Host country in 2008. Following the Beijing Games, the organisation WABC (World of Art Brut Culture) was set up by artist Miao Shiming in 2009, and is dedicated to “Eliminating social prejudices against disabled people by offering them a stage to display their artistic talents”. In just five years WABC have established branches in six cities including Beijing, where they began, and Shanghai where their HQ now is, and are working with more than 20 communities of disabled people.
WABC run regular workshops and classes within these communities during the week, and open their studios at the weekend to the keenest artists. They have developed a teaching style based on developing individual creativity rather than, as is more common in China, having a standardised method of teaching art skills. They also make mass artworks in public, and enable their artists to merchandise and sell their work. Together! has been in regular email contact with WABC since September, but we were able to see each other and talk in ‘real time’ today for the first time. This meant a late Old Town Hall breakfast for us but a late day at the HQ for WABC, as Shanghai is currently eight hours ahead of London; we really appreciated the efforts they made.
We were delighted that our MP Stephen Timms was able to join us at the start to welcome WABC’s coordinator, Ree Wang, and their founder, artist Miao Shiming. Stephen seemed as thrilled as the rest of us in London and China to be talking directly to Shanghai. We were able to view WABC artists’ work on their office wall, and ‘meet’ several other of their artists as well. In return we were able to show our Chinese friends some of our Open Exhibition work, and introduce a group of local disabled artists. At the end of our 35-minute conversation we all had our hands up for a virtual ‘group hug’, determined that we will meet in person before too long, and with many joint plans for the future.
And that was just the beginning of a very sociable and exciting ‘Day’, since it also saw the official launch of our Hands Project which will become an international touring installation in 2015. Hands from WABC and Australia had been sent to join the that hands we’ve been making over the summer, which were hung up on ribbons around our (heated!) marquee. We also had hands that were made last weekend at Young DaDaFest in Liverpool (where we were represented by Programme Director Sarah Hughes and Act Up members Sterre Ploeger and Hanah Facey). During the morning some beautiful hands arrived from the Discover Centre‘s Mighty Mega Saturday Club, and disabled people and friends dropped in throughout the day to make more hands, while enjoying refreshments and a chat. We were extremely pleased to welcome Councillor Jo Corbett, the new Cabinet lead on Equalities, as well as other councillors and council officers, and to be able to talk to them about the social barriers that disabled artists face in the UK. Please do join in and get your own hands up – you can find all of the instructions here.
We were also very pleased that our friends from the Chamber of Commerce, Allistair Anderson and Hasina Zaman from Compassionate Funerals, gave up their time to include us in another international art installation, “Before I Die, I want to”. Originated by Candy Chang in New Orleans, participants are asked to think of at least one thing that they’d like to do before they die, focussing on their hopes, aspirations and dreams. These are then written on a blackboard, which is photographed when full and the images added to the international website. Disabled people are often treated as if we have no aspirations and dreams, and are seldom encouraged to fulfil them – more usually, we are told that they are impossible – so we very much welcomed this innovative project.
We hung all of our hands on red ribbon today in honour of Monday’s World AIDS Day. We also welcome Compassionate Funerals’ desire to encourage talk about death and dying in a positive and practical way. Many disabled people are living with life-limiting or terminal conditions, but find that other people will refuse to discuss their related experiences and concerns. Disabled people with life-limiting or terminal conditions are also the worst affected by delays and errors in providing services and equipment and processing benefit claims. We are thinking of these people today, some of whom will not be with us next year, as well as remembering and honouring lost friends. We are also thinking of people living with HIV, who need to be recognised and supported as part of the disabled people’s community, rather than continuing to be defined and segregated by their medical condition.
Many thanks go to artists John Jennings and Cleonie Jennings, who led the hands making, Compassionate Funerals, our own wonderful team, and as always to the Old Town Hall staff, who despite running multiple events every day still manage to provide support when necessary, and whose catering is always extremely well-received too!