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Opinion: What springs to mind when you think of artists with disabilities?

If an artist’s intellectual disability informs your opinion of their work, then you’re missing the point – and missing out.

Padraig Naughton

AS DIRECTOR OF Arts & Disability Ireland the national development organisation for arts and disability, I far prefer to champion the creativity of artists with disabilities rather than talk about artist’s disabilities. However, in this instance I feel I need to start from the impairment perspective, as when it comes to the creativity of people with disabilities it so often seems to colour people’s opinion of the art they are about to see or have seen.

So, with that in mind, let me start with a question: what springs to mind when you think of people with intellectual disabilities making art?

In my 20 years of working in the arts I’ve heard all sorts of responses to this question, from the patronising to the awe-inspired. For many, the art of people with intellectual disabilities is seen as being a leisure or therapeutic activity, rather than art that is competing at a professional level that the public will buy to hang on their walls or purchase tickets to go and see. Among programmers and curators within the arts community, issues of quality and language still arise.

An important milestone for the arts in Ireland

It is for these reasons that Jez Colborne’s presentation of Trickster at Galway’s Black Box Theatre is an important milestone for the arts in Ireland; it marks a moment when a person with an intellectual disability takes centre stage as the creative force behind a large-scale artistic commission. Jez, facilitated by Mind the Gap, is collaborating with That’s Life artists from across county Galway. That’s Life is a Brothers of Charity multidisciplinary arts project working with people with intellectual disabilities. Trickster is one of three commissions worth €60,000 each, awarded funding under the Ignite initiative.

Ignite is an initiative of the Arts Council, Arts & Disability Ireland and four local authorities in Galway, Mayo and Cork, to commission internationally recognised artists with disabilities to create new and ambitious work. Essential to the realisation of these commissions was that artists would partner with the disability community and an arts organisation, venue or festival in each local authority area. The aim being that there would be a lasting legacy in terms of learning and ambition for the future.

Conclusion to a trilogy 

Part of a trilogy, Trickster is the final in a series of of projects, proceeded by Gift and Irresistible. It was with Irresistible Jez Colborne first came to international notice. Commissioned by Unlimited for the London 2012 Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad, Irresistible has been presented at London’s Southbank Centre, National Theatre, Olympic Park, Bradford, St Helens, Unity Festival Cardiff, Berne, Geneva, Basel and Zurich. A live event combining music, theatre, film and sirens, Irresistible was influenced by Jez’s childhood fear turned fascination with sirens.

Gift was a much more intimate affair in which Jez used a shipping container as a musical instrument and performance space. It was commissioned by PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music Biennial, part of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme and was performed in Bradford, London and Glasgow.

A collaborative approach that takes creativity to a whole new level

Jez Colborne is a multi-talented composer, musician, actor and siren enthusiast with an intellectual disability; this CV clearly illustrates what an accomplished performer he is, and why he was chosen in an open competitive process to lead the Ignite commission in Galway.

He’s aslo is part of Mind the Gap – the UK’s largest theatre company of people with intellectual disabilities based in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Mind the Gap brings together artists with intellectual disabilities and non-disabled artists to develop the talents of the artists through formal training, work experience and live performance. It’s this partnership approach that Jez and Mind the Gap have brought to Galway in showcasing Trickster at the Black Box Theatre, in collaboration with That’s Life.

That’s Life already have many accomplishments to their credit, such as the anthology Jessica Casey and Other Works published by Salmon Poetry in 2012, their annual Club Tropicana, the Soundscape Band and Gamelan Na Gaillimhe.

However, their collaboration with Mind the Gap takes their creativity and artistic output to a whole new level: the premier of Trickster will see the presentation of a large-scale, high quality, disability-led work, focused on innovation and ambition underpinned by strong artist and producer relationships. It will showcase the best of what artists with intellectual disabilities from Ireland and the UK have to offer – a musical celebration and spectacle for the entire family.

Galway will see people with intellectual disabilities giving to audiences as professional artists – and adding to the cultural offering of Ireland.

Padraig Naughton is the director Arts & Disability Ireland. Trickster, composed by Jez Colborne, will take place on Friday 10 – Saturday 11 October 2014 at the Black Box Theatre, Galway. 

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Padraig Naughton

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