Inkjet printing, found objects, tapestry, and an artist’s own blood; the range of techniques and tools showcased at this exhibition are as diverse as the individuals that have submitted work to be part of it. In some instances, personal barriers to more conventional forms of creative expression, have led artists to experiment with alternative materials or technologies, and in turn shift psychological boundaries around what is possible. In her piece ‘An Invitation to Speak’ for example, Sonja Zelic makes imaginative use of chromatography to represent her experience of selective mutism and its impact on her career “(it) limits my ability to successfully apply for commissions and residencies as they usually involve an oral presentation or interview”.

‘My Life’ is the fourth annual ‘Shape Open’ exhibition, dedicated to provoking debate and reflection around disability issues. It is led by the charity ‘Shape Arts’, which celebrates its Fortieth anniversary this year, and its successful track record of supporting artists with disabilities to develop their careers, networks, and creative practice. The exhibition is located in the ‘Guest Project’ gallery space, which forms part of the studios of former Turner Prize nominee, Yinka Shonibare, which are in Hackney, East London (just off the Regents Canal and you will need to ring the doorbell to get in!). Shonibare himself is a remarkable artist who lives with a disability; his piece ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ for example, raises important questions about globalization and is now a permanent installation at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, following a residency on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, in 2010.

In 2016, the work of Shape Arts is arguably more important than ever. Although the charity started operating in 1976, before the entitlements of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act were secured, recent cuts to public services, have brought new challenges for people with disabilities. This questions the more positive narratives that are being promoted through the continuing legacy of the 2012 Paralympic Games, that took place within only 3-4 miles of Shonibare’s studio. One piece within the ‘My Life’ exhibition, Claire Newton’s ‘Inspired by Paralympians’ is a proactive response to her “feeling excluded” by the Paralympic movement; a panoramic parody which attempts to make its own new world record as the world’s longest photograph!

In this context of contemporary Britain, several pieces within ‘My Life’ emphasise the realities of living with pain or with dependency on equipment or carers. One highlight of the exhibition,‘Stillness’, is a self-portrait of the artist, Andrew Benton, seated whilst having a shower: an intimate reminder of the personal adjustments, which are made to everyday routines and a glimpse into an individual’s private world, which those who are differently-abled may find difficult to imagine. More symbolically, Angela Edmond’s piece ‘Cold Comfort’ is a rubber hot water bottle, with a superimposed metal plug, emphasising the imposition of physical discomfort, and precariousness of any treatments to address it.

Another theme that runs throughout various pieces within the exhibition is that of fluctuating capacity and alternations to and from being (dis)abled.   A number of the artists for example had either developed a disability later in life (Yinka Shonibare himself became a wheelchair user as a result of an illness he experienced at the age of 18) or experienced sustained periods of time when they gave an appearance of being in recovery. When completing her piece ‘Rubbish!” for example, Alice Dass had recently regained the ability to walk, yet was unable to predict when (or if) she would ever need to resume use of a wheelchair (in ‘Rubbish’ there seems to be uncertainty over whether or not it is the wheelchair or Dass herself that has been consigned to society’s scrapheap). In Britain in 2016, this emphasis on (dis)ability not being a fixed thing is crucial: work capability assessments may remove benefits on the basis of somebody being “fit to work” one day, yet unable to meet the demands of many employers the next.

Some of my favourite artworks within ‘My Life’ however were those that grappled with universal issues relating to disability that had just as much relevance in 1976 as they do in 2016. Regina Lafay Bellamy’s ‘Practitioner’ for example raises familiar questions around the authority of the medical establishment, by subverting what could otherwise be a fairly standard Enlightenment-era portrait of a scientist or doctor. In doing this, Bellamy is also challenging the conventions around art itself advocating for that greater plurality in representation that can be encountered across the rest of the exhibition.

My Life’ runs until 21st February 2016. It is at ‘Guest Projects’, 1 Andrews Road E8 4QL

Blog by Tracy Edwards; originally published on her website.

Banner image: Alice Dass - Rubbish!