My Kind of Welcome Mat

Filed Under (Art, Critical Disability Studies) by Estee on 20-01-2010

Some of you know that I have curated a few exhibitions. In 2005 and 2006 I curated two exhibitions in Toronto regarding autism in attempt to question stereotypes. On Valentines Day, I will be moving into my new home with Adam. It’s a cheesy holiday, I know. Yet, if I have to move out of the home my husband and I built together, let the love pour into my new one….very symbolic. My new home is about belonging.

The art I put in my home, as I see it, is an act of love. On a prominent wall in the entrance, leading up the stairs, I’ve placed some significant photographs (significant for me), which were in fact turned down by an organization that I proposed to do an exhibition with because “they may upset people.” I was told that, because most of the photographs were of nude, that this was the issue — not that they were both nude and disabled people. I would argue, however, that they would not likely turn down the Venus de Milo. She’s nude and she has no arms.

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I am building my own “outsider” art collection. You will find me always putting the term “outsider” in quotation marks because while it is a recognized term in the art community as a genre unto itself, the implication is that it is a genre on the margins of the art world because most of the art that was produced under this category is “self-taught.” Yet, it is a genre large enough to have created a category, but not quite significant enough, one could argue, to belong to larger art community that participates at Art Basel, Venice Biennale, Dokumenta, and at major private galleries an public institutions. I personally feel the attitude is changing. The term “outsider” has remained precisely as a symbol of how we might have formerly regarded the artists who produced the work as individuals who were relegated to the margins of society. I like to think that we have more respect for individuals today who were treated as “marginal” people.

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Disability, beauty and sexuality and the idea of acceptance and belonging are big issues when considering the essence of identity. On my wall, I have place a photograph of “Scarlett” in an rampaged room (I collected this photo from Europe), along with a series of Diane Arbus-type photographs by other well-known photographers. I compare them to the visionary Diane Arbus because she also studied families and circus people up close and challenged society to revisit ideas of what it means to be human in a time when such individuals she studied were sent to the circus for us to view as freaks. Diane used her camera to move in close, make us uncomfortable and like the freak show, she knew we wouldn’t be able to take our eyes away.

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When I put them up I thought of the upcoming house-warming and “renewal” parties (I like to call it that for now as I am in a period of renewal) and the way people are going to react to the photos confronting them in my front hallway, knowing how one institution already responded. Will this upset people; will they think these photographs are weird? I considered. Will it make them uncomfortable? For certain, I anticipate many conversations in my home about what it means to be disabled, what is beauty, what is identity and what makes a sexual being. On the one hand, I wonder about art in the home as typically people put up neutral things — should I have put up an abstract or a bunch of flowers?

Yet in my home, I have an autistic son. I live with difference and the beauty of his difference every single day. Not only do I want my son to see people with disabilities as humans — but beautiful humans and I want him to see himself as “beautiful,” if beauty be equated with value. I am often struck by how “beautiful” people in wheelchairs are still regarded more than average-looking people in wheelchairs. We often consider it “a shame” that “such a good-looking person” be confined to the wheelchair, as if the value of the person is now cut in half.

The people in these photographs are a mixture of beautiful and average-looking people with a leg missing, non-functioning legs and average-looking people with “mis”-shaped faces and bodies. I think to question beauty is important — from manufactured beauty to the beauty inside a person. Christine — the woman with one leg — is also reflected from a mirror on my fireplace mantel on an opposite wall. Everyday as I chastise myself for not being thin enough or young enough, I hope to be reminded that I am more than what I appear to be. I’ve advocated for Adam all of these years and all of these people, including Adam, have reminded me to be less judgmental of myself as a woman living in graceless times — where we carve ourselves under knives and lasers to become something “more beautiful.” I am not attempting to chastise the entire industry of prosthetics or plastic surgery because the industry has also helped a lot of people cope with events like breast cancer, burns and so on. But I hope that in raising the question we can all see how complicated the body has become. As a woman, I’ll admit this is a great area of conflict for me and my emotions can’t keep up with my head.

So, I had to question who else might put these works front and centre in their home (which is why I’m writing this post). It’s fine to look at such images at exhibitions and in book, but the home, where we manifest our identities may be something different. I’m trying not to self-adulate, because I found myself questioning. I know that some people will not understand and may initially feel uncomfortable (the precise opposite of what we try to accomplish in our homes as we want to welcome people to them). Across from the photos, by the way, sit two paintings that I purchased from Larry Bissonnette — a well-known autistic artist, and my two Jonathan Lerman pieces (also an autistic artist) are on the stairwell going down to the basement.

I have a series of thoughts and hopes, perhaps, as I put the work up. First, it will prompt discussion — some of it may be difficult, I understand. Second, I want to question stereotypes of not just disability but what is beautiful as we (especially me) spend many dollars and energy seeking to look more perfect and defy our age. And last, I actually want people in my home to let their hair down. I want the judge in everyone to disappear.

In my view, it’s the best welcome mat money can buy.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.