Shape Arts brings the UK’s Disability Arts movement to the Venice Biennale

Leading UK disabled-led arts organisation, Shape Arts has curated a landmark exhibition of work by disabled artists which also charts the UK’s disability arts and rights movements. Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice is on display at CREA during the run of the 2024 Venice Biennale. Shape Arts CEO and the exhibition’s curator, David Hevey explains how it came about and why it is such an important moment for disability representation in the visual arts.

Huge inflatable sculpture and a gold car propped up in a Venice street
Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice. Jason Wilshere-Mills, Rhubarb Totem. Tony Heaton, Gold Lamé. Photograph: Andy Barker

In 2017, David Hevey had just started out as the new CEO of Shape Arts, one of the UK’s leading disabled-led organisations which focusses primarily on visual arts. Whilst attending the Venice Biennale, he was struck by the impact of the Diaspora Pavilion, curated by David Bailey and Jessica Taylor featuring UK artists from diasporic backgrounds which was ‘conceived as a challenge to the prevalence of national pavilions within the structure of the Venice Biennale.’ “I thought it was a great show and a great idea,” explains David. “Seeing it gave me the idea that the Disability Arts Movement (DAM) should be in Venice too!”

After several years of development, garnering support and funding from both Arts Council England and the British Council, work on the exhibition itself commenced in 2022. The end result is an expansive exhibition at CREA, which is away from the national pavilion circuit, featuring work by eight disabled artists and the archive of photographer, Keith Armstrong (1950-2017). The show very much tells the story of how the Disability Arts Movement contributed to the UK’s disability human rights struggle, culminating in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which enshrined several rights for disabled people in law.

The sense of ‘challenging’ the art world establishment which, for many, the Venice Biennale represents, is as central to Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice as it was to the Diaspora Pavilion which inspired it. Hevey expands:

Venice is both the top table of the art world, and incredibly inaccessible in terms of access, wealth and privilege. I wanted to take apart the Venice art world of bourgeois privilege, and move on from both art-in-a-white-cube or the faux politics of modern art, and directly re-align great art to the come-out-fighting politics of the Disability Arts Movement. And I wanted to do this challenging from within who gets to show at the Venice Art Biennale. It’s very significant and it’s right [that the] Disability Arts Movement is in Venice!

Installation photograph of part of an exhibition in a gallery space with grey walls and concrete floors. On the right wall, portrait paintings are hung atop a large photograph which appears from the snippets in frame to be of a protest. A sculpture sits on the floor. The piece is a stylised and cartoonish depiction of a grinning man in only his underwear standing on a red plinth. He wears a blue mask or bandage wrapped around his face. There is a cavity where his heart should be, emphasised by the sculpture’s hand posed to point directly into the space. Behind the sculpture, on the wall, are some exhibition interpretation panels beneath a neon artwork in the shape of a crucifix. The words ‘raspberry ripple’ overlap to form the shape.
Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice. Tanya Raabe-Webber, Portraits. Jason Wilsher-Mills, I Am Argonaut. Photograph: Andy Barker.

The artwork in the exhibition is a combination of pieces from prominent artists within the UK’s Disability Arts Movement and newer works by a younger generation of disabled artists. For Hevey, the Disability Arts Movement’s rich history is the real ‘star of the show’.

“But it had these amazing artists within its heritage story, who fought for rights, helped achieve rights, and made great art about those struggles. I began very much by working out which artists could I work with to show that, and Tony Heaton OBE was first in the frame, because he has made several of the iconic pieces over the decades which exemplifies the DAM, and it can be argued, that Tony is the ‘Godfather’ of the DAM. Then, again, because I wanted the movement to be the star, Tanya Raabe Webber was also in the frame early on, because of both her great painterly approaches but also because of who she painted, particularly the DAM leaders in the Who’s Who series.”

David Hevey

Enhancing the historical storytelling are the images of activist street photographer Keith Armstrong which show visceral moments of disabled people fighting for rights, including many of the key Disability Arts Movement figures. “It’s imbued with the history, very much so,” says Hevey. “Because I thought that historical story was the best story to tell in Venice at this time; I think audiences are crying out for art-of-activism that actually achieved power and rights – which is why the DAM is up there with the best of art/political movements.”  

Installation shot of an exhibition showing lots of archive photographs, a huge protest style banner and display plinth
Keith Armstrong’s Archive at Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice. Photograph: Andy Barker

Half of the eight exhibiting artists were selected via suggestions put forward by a group of more than 20 curatorial advisors, which produced hundreds of names. That was then whittled down and selections made based on which works would fit the themes of the show.

That produced Abi Palmer, Jameisha Prescod and Ker Wallwork, very much a born-digital generation  coming through in that process. Terence Birch was also chosen through the Open Call approaches, with his work reflecting, perhaps, the debility movement approaches (around those too exhausted to fight for rights). Others such as Jason Wilsher Mills were selected by me, because of his approach to the burlesque crip body, which I also think was a significant DAM strand.

In researching the curation, Hevey and exhibition designer Nina Shen (Director and co-founder of contemporary art platform CT20) visited over 500 shows to take inspiration and cues as to what a modern international exhibition looks like. The result is a bold, defiant aesthetic, bursting with colour and jumping off the walls into the space. “I wanted to convey the sheer exuberance of struggle,” explains Hevey. “The joy of fighting barriers to get to what’s right, and that exhilaration of resistance that I and others felt when we were on demos.”

A large colourful protest style banner which reads the disability arts movement in Venice
Crip Arte Spazio: The DAM in Venice. Photograph: Andy Barker.

A big moment was when we brought in Nina Shen, as curatorial advisor and exhibition designer, and we began to work out how to convey that feeling of joyous resistance. Nina came up with the design very much around larger-than-life general approaches – huge banners declaring the DAM IN VENICE, huge screens for the films, huge approaches that make audiences look up in awe at the crips, rather than down in pity. We had a large venue to fill, but the sheer hugeness was her designs and idea. We also brought in graphic novel approaches to the interpretation, so that we could draw up a valorising and uplifting version of the DAM and their fights for rights, visibility and new art.  

Given the radical aesthetics and activist approach, it is perhaps surprising that the exhibition has been embraced by key art world gatekeepers, most notably Frieze Magazine who ran a large profile on the exhibition. It was also selected within the London Evening Standard’s ‘top five’. The exhibition is getting around 5,000 visitors a month and has had online engagement approaching half a million. “We had Ambassadors, Ministers and other dignitaries coming over to see it, too,” Hevey enthuses. “So all in all, its hit a nerve, and has been very well received.”

Is a disabled-led show featuring all disabled artists at Venice a watershed moment signifying real change? On that, Hevey is a little more circumspect. 

There is definitely movement but one is pushing for and hoping for a great leap forward, in the way that TV has embraced disability. It’s in all our interests to open the art world to wider voices. I have had lots of conversations with curators who want to spin off from DAM in Venice so I hope to see many other disabled-led shows on the international visual arts stages in the coming years.

This particular exhibition is likely to tour, and Hevey teases that The DAM in…could be something a franchise that goes global.

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