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24 Sep 2017


By Gracie Carroll

Meet The Toronto-Based Curators Supporting Artists with Disability

By Contributor1

Bodywashi! by Laura Shintani

So often we see marginalized communities, such as those with mental health or disabilities, looked over for opportunities or falling through the cracks of our system. But thanks in large part to Workman Arts and Tangled Art Gallery, these folks have a place to share their art and their voice and given a safe space for why it matters.

Known internationally for their artistic collaborations, together Workman Arts and Tangled Art Gallery have come together to present, Fault Lines. The show will showcase artists Leala Hewak and Laura Shintani who have tried to challenges the problematic and commonly accepted ideas about disability and aesthetics using altered photographs, video, fabricated materials, and immersive installations.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with curators Sean Lee of Tangled Art Gallery and Claudette Abrams of Workman Arts to give us some insights on the show and what it means to champion the arts in Canada right now.

tangled art gallery toronto


Edit Seven: How important is it to both of you to champion disability art and mental health awareness (in the arts) in Canada?

Sean Lee: Throughout my artistic career, I’ve felt that my tastes were cultivated to suit a mainstream that did not consider disability an acceptable way of being. Raised in an artistic mindset of able-bodied compulsoriness, disability art and mental health awareness in the arts has radically shifted my understanding of the transformative possibilities that art activism can achieve. Mobilizing disability as culturally participative enables the formation of a social and political identity in disability that transcends individual experience. Because Canada invests in art as a public good, having accessible arts and culture that reflect the complexities of our embodiments is vital to a future that engages with diversity and inclusivity.

Claudette Abrams: “Canaries” is moniker many artists in mental health circles have appropriated; alluding to how miners once exploited the sensitivity of canaries to detect lethal gases. Contemporary artists are ahead of mainstream culture and policy implementation, in terms of calling the alarm on inclusivity. By 2020 over one-third of the global workforce will be made up of millennials. In Canada, over 12 million people will belong to a visible minority group. Student surveys are now telling us now that a lack of diversity is hindering achievement and that levels of anxiety and depression are unacceptably high. Artists are the vital “canaries in the coalmine” signaling an urgent need for change by bringing important investigative and material forms of expression to contemporary lived experiences of disability, gender fluidity, racial and cultural diversity.

Sean Lee - tangled art gallery

Sean Lee of Tangled Art + Disability Gallery

Edit Seven: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout the years while trying to champion otherwise marginalized voices – as individual organizations and together as a collective?

Sean Lee: I feel that the biggest challenge facing disability arts and culture is an overwhelming subscription of mainstream society to the medical model of disability. This context locates the experience of disability as a medical problem in need of a fix, without consideration of the ways that society has been constructed to exclude. For example, if a wheelchair user wants to enter a building with a step, the medical model would see the wheelchair as being the cause of the barrier. When we shift our understanding towards a social or political model of disability however, we begin to understand how society has been shaped without disabled people in mind, and we would be able to see how the building, built with steps, as being the barrier for someone’s participation rather than the wheelchair. In this way, we are critiquing the frameworks of society that are disabling rather than placing the burden on the impairment. This has been a system that is beginning to gain traction, but a history of exclusion means that there is still a long way to go.

Claudette Abrams: Stigma is a huge challenge to break down and break through to create meaningful engagement. Recalling watching video of Lisa Bufano’s stunning public store-front performance, where a member of the public asked if she was “handicapped”.. & when the videographer said “she has no legs below the knee & missing fingers” the viewer then added.. “mentally fine thou?”. It stands for me as an all-too-often reductive reaction and opportunity lost for openness to human connection, richness, and beauty. Another huge challenge is poverty. Artists of lived experience of mind/body disability face substantial barriers to basic services such as education, employment, health care, and housing, let alone access to funding to pursue their practice. The most enlightening aspect arising out of these limitations is the remarkable work that artists produce by improvising with what they have, such as by using their bodies or re-claiming materials; a process which involves some of the hallmark qualities of a growing disability aesthetic; inclusive, non-normative, unapologetic, self-taught, resourceful.

Clone by Leala Hewak

Edit Seven: Are there some of the specifics about this year’s installations that you’re most excited about and why?

Sean Lee: I am most excited about cripping Contact! The verb ‘crip’ comes from Kelly Fritsch, a disability scholar, who defines the reclaimed word as “to open with desire for the disruption of disability”, and I think this is what our artists Leala Hewak and Laura Shintani do so well. As two artists who already stretch the idea of the photographic image, both artists employ a sensibility informed by their unique experiences of Madness and neurodiversity into the work. For example, Leala Hewak is a photographer who’s techniques employ collage in a way that embodies a unique understanding of perfection. She describes the way she arrived at her techniques as being rather serendipitous, through her impatience and learning disability. Hewak arrived at glitches in her collage that exemplify the ways in which disability might lend new perspectives and revitalize techniques in art. Though glitch art is not a new concept, its intersection and relation to disability as something wholly disabled highlights the way in which the art world has always appreciated the aesthetics of disability without crediting the techniques as such. Digital art and glitch work in this way become a symbolic exercise that can reflect experiences of disability. The exposure of meta or underlying structures, therefore, echoes the fallacies of control in social constructions. Historically, art has been seen as good for disability but through strong disability arts programming, it’s time we recognize that disability is good for art!

Claudette Abrams: I’m excited about how the artists Leala Hewak and Laura Shintani have approached and responded to situations of challenge and disruption in their work with optimism, humour and openness. Laura Shintani’s installation BodyWashi! is an immersive space intended to shed light on non-normative experiences. Inspired by the Japanese Shinto practice of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”; the mindful and restorative act of taking in the forest through our senses. Bodywashi! is a constructed environment set-up to invite participants to sensorially engage with materials directly by passing through a “forest” of suspended strips of cellulose film, rice paper and projected photographic imagery.


Edit Seven: How did Tangled Art Gallery and Workman Arts decide to join forces this year and what was the collaboration process like?

Sean Lee: As two of the leaders in the conversation of disability and mental health in the arts, this partnership between Tangled Art + Disability and Workman Arts is a natural fit that we hope to continue. Through the Contact photography festival, our hope is that photography can be the praxis to explore the convergence and divergence in the conversations between Madness and disability. Workman Arts is the longest-running multi-disciplinary arts and mental health organization in North America. Tangled Art + Disability has recently opened the first disability art gallery and is the only fully disability-led arts organization in Canada. By exploring these intersections, and continually agitating and complicating our understandings of disability and mental health, we hope to glean alterities to cultural modalities. Contact will provide an opportune moment to engage in our partnership and highlight this conversation.

Claudette Abrams

Claudette Abrams of Workman Arts

Edit Seven: Given our current political climate, why do you think it’s important that programming like this continues to champions voices across Canada?

Sean Lee: This programming is important because it is inherently political. In our current political climate, one fraught with the mentality of compulsory able-bodiedness, disability arts is more important than ever for confronting our cultural priorities. Disability arts provide a counter to dominant narratives of neoliberal economic, political and social agendas that would suggest disability has no place in our futures. In the face of budget cuts in the arts, we must recognize the damage it would do in rupturing the momentum of a currently flourishing arts sector. A culture of scarcity asks us not to dream but to survive.

Claudette Abrams: Many voices are marginalized and missing from the current decision-making table that goes to policy-making on diversity and inclusivity. The last Government of Canada report on the GDP showed the arts sector growing at 4+% while the overall economy grew at 1+%. Benefits of the arts are evident in other sectors such as employment, multi-culturalism, education and health care, which are also being threatened by the current provincial administration.


Edit Seven: Which formal boundaries of curating in the art world are you most interested in breaking?

Sean Lee: I’m most interested in disrupting the notion of access as an add-on. Our accessible curatorial practices at Tangled are deeply tied to ‘crip’ aesthetics, that is a desire to engender the essential elements of what constitutes the relational experiences of disability. By folding accessibility not simply as a logistical means to an end, but rather holistically approaching accessibility as a desirable cultural aesthetic, our accessible curatorial practices aim to shift cultural understandings of normalcy and formalized standards of exhibiting. The artists in Fault Lines both aim to incorporate a multisensorial experience into their installations, not only to open their works to new audiences but as a way of shifting their own practices to re-orient their imagined audiences when they create work.

Claudette Abrams: I’m interested in pushing back against the popularized idea of promoting artists of non-normative minds/bodies as “outsiders”.. and more so as “insiders”.. where disability is viewed as a valued resource and embraced as a defining concept of aesthetic practice that leads into shared spaces of a broader, richer experience.


The exhibition, FAULT LINES from artists Leala Hewak and Laura Shintani will be running from May 3 – June 15, 2019, at the Tangled Art + Disability Gallery (401 Richmond St W Ste 122) in Toronto. Check out the the artist talk on May 18, 2:00 – 4:00 pm.




(Story by Contributing Editor, Ama Scriver)



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