What does it mean to flourish? These artists with disabilities are dismantling assumptions

A new exhibition at Toronto's Tangled Art + Disability gallery is showing the richness of the lives of disability-identified artists.

A new exhibition is showing the richness of the lives of disability-identified artists

Sarah Ferguson's work at FLOURISHING. (Courtesy Tangled Art + Disability)

Tangled Art + Disability is a small gallery tucked in the charming, antiquated warehouse-sprawl of 401 Richmond Street West in downtown Toronto. The building originally housed a first-of-its-kind tin lithography factory, and though the company folded more than 70 years ago, 401 Richmond is still home to folks on the frontlines of their industry. Tangled is at the forefront of disability arts in Canada, where it is forwarding accessibility, inclusion and artist-centered development and curatorial practices in an ableist industry culture that frequently erases these elements.

Tangled's new exhibition series FLOURISHING explores conceptions of the titular word through the works of various deaf, mad and disability-identified artists. The first exhibition is "Somehow We Stay Attuned," which opened on September 7 at Tangled and runs through October 19th. It features three Canadian artists — Sarah Ferguson, Peter Owusu-Ansah and Salima Punjani — who have produced works interrogating what it means to flourish as a disability-identified artist.

"There's this sort of assumption when you have a disability that you are not high-functioning, that you are not capable, that you do not have the capacity to have joy in your life," says Ferguson. "People have rich lives, whether they're dealing with disability or not."

Sarah Ferguson's work at FLOURISHING. (Courtesy Tangled Art + Disability)

One of Ferguson's series of works is titled "Lady of the Flowers," a reference to the 1943 novel of the same name by French writer Jean Genet. They've created three self-portraits that reflect and interrogate their existence at the intersections of trans and disabled experiences. The photographs portray Ferguson in differing environs, adorned with grotesque, insectoid masks which they created with the help of a California-based prosthetics company.

"They're not meant to shock," Ferguson explains. "For me, it's about trying to viscerally work through my inability to express myself as someone who identifies as trans and as someone who has been othered." They add with a grin, "It's campy and it's drag-y."

There's this sort of assumption when you have a disability that you are not high-functioning, that you are not capable, that you do not have the capacity to have joy in your life. People have rich lives, whether they're dealing with disability or not.- Sarah Ferguson, artist

Ferguson's work deals with gender dysphoria. Through still images, they feel able to capture their state more truly than in real time, where their body is coded and read with a normative lens. "For me, the photograph is a way of situating my very fluid, ambiguous self in a world that constantly feels like it's bombarding me," they explain. "It's a way of anchoring myself physically through objecthood, and through the art object to the world. When you can give something a shape, you can have agency over it."

In the context of a world that often passively and actively strips these artists of agency, that idea is central to Tangled and FLOURISHING. Communicating with the assistance of an ASL interpreter, Owusu-Ansah explains that ableism often leaves disability-identified artists feeling like they aren't part of the world at large. Each time he has submitted works for consideration to a gallery, they have referred him to Tangled, which he calls a sort of "polite ableism" that restricts disability arts from reaching mainstream galleries. "The non-deaf world affects deaf people, but how do we affect the world? It can't just be one-way."

Peter Owusu-Ansah's work at FLOURISHING. (Courtesy Tangled Art + Disability)

Owusu-Ansah's work for FLOURISHING consists of colour grids — a style he attributes to the influence of Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly. He calls it his "attempt to draw people's attention in to the deaf community. I want them to experience the deaf world. I would like to welcome people into that world."

He sees the broader social concept of flourishing as a community-building project. "For another person to flourish, they have to see how I flourish. There's a real symbiotic relationship. When you're looking at my colour grids, you're looking at my life and my growth and my flourishing."

Punjani's works involve visual, audio, and tactile components. The project started with photographing other folks living with multiple sclerosis, whom Punjani met through an MS support group. "Everyone was hungry for care, or to be listened to in a different way — where it wasn't just symptoms and what's wrong with you, but who you are and what makes you who you are." Punjani thought that photography could serve as a platform to "process being sick."

Salima Punjani's work at FLOURISHING. (Courtesy Tangled Art + Disability)

Her photographs capture each person as they want to be seen — some wanted to appear seductive, while others wanted to portray their experience of joy, and still others wanted to depict their experience of suffering. It was about "owning your own vulnerabilities and frailty, and not letting anyone else define it." As she took the photos, Punjani recorded their brainwaves with a Muse headset. With the help of Aaron Labbé of Toronto's Lucid Project, she transformed the data collected into sound to provide an audio component, while the photos were laser-cut into wood to provide a tactile experience. Punjani says it's part of "finding a way to transform narratives into an accessible form."

For another person to flourish, they have to see how I flourish. There's a real symbiotic relationship. When you're looking at my colour grids, you're looking at my life and my growth and my flourishing.- Peter  Owusu-Ansah , artist

Each of these artists and their works — along with Tangled as an organization — is part of a movement that gallery manager Sean Lee refers to as "cripping the arts," where "crip" is a  reclaiming of the word "cripple." He explains: "It's really about how we think about the concepts that are cemented into society, and the engrained ableism that might be pervasive in ways that we don't even know. To crip things is to accept that we're coming from many different places. There's no 'one' disability arts."

This manifests at Tangled through not just accessibility for audiences — which includes things like having ASL interpreters present, adhering to start/stop times that respect WheelTrans schedules and hanging works at lower heights so as not to privilege taller folks — but accessibility for artists. Lee explains that the way disability is read as suffering is actually a product of ableism: "People don't think about how [lack of] access and inclusion is really what's creating these symptoms of suffering, of not having what you need."

Tangled Art + Disability's FLOURISHING exhibition. (Courtesy Tangled Art + Disability)

Lee notes that an intersectional and fluid approach to cripping is key. "Even the word disability [is] a very colonial term. When we centre disabled Indigenous artists, how can we think about the ways that we approach the frameworks of disability without falling into the trappings of colonialism?"

These are questions that the artists and workers behind FLOURISHING are investigating. The series ultimately suggests that there's no one answer: it is, like our lived realities, plural.

"These are all voices that history has silenced, because history is a construction," Ferguson says. "I'm a fighter, and I think we do need to fight for the floor. Eventually, hopefully, we won't need to fight for the floor anymore. Hopefully, we'll be able to just be on the floor and present."

FLOURISHING: Somehow We Stay Attuned. September 7-October 19. Tangled Art + Disability. Toronto. www.tangledarts.org

About the Author

Luke Ottenhof

Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.