Seven of us — the magnificent seven — journeyed, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, on a modern-day pilgrimage, by train from London to Coventry. The holy site we went to visit was the epicentre of the 2021 city of culture — not Coventry’s famous cathedrals, but the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. In it were five holy shrines, each exhibiting the work of one of the five artist collectives nominated for the 2021 Turner Prize.
All the pilgrims (bar one — see the next sentence) were, in different ways, disabled artists, and members of Autograph's Transforming Leadership programme for those who experience barriers to our entry into the art world. Though not a disabled artist, Livvy organised and coordinated the trip and, on the day, formed part of our rebellious cabal. You may rightly imagine the trip as less of a hallowed pilgrimage and more of a day out for a wayward mob of adolescents (even though we are all adults, and I am in my seventies!).
Like The Canterbury Tales, our unspoken backdrop was a pandemic. In Chaucer’s time it was the worst ravages of what became known as the Great Plague. For us, more than seven hundred years later, it was coronavirus. Although remarkably absent from the foreground, they form an ominous context to both.
The journey was more than just a tourist trip
Within the group, photographer Dexter McLean is, I think, amongst the more established artists in the group and perhaps the most obviously disabled (by common representation), being an electric wheelchair user. He also has the best, the wildest, sense of humour (by group consensus). My abiding image of the day is Dexter in his wheelchair, juddering over the cobble stones of Coventry, his voice modulating high and low, while all the time trying to carry on a conversation.
Over lunch, we discussed the relative merits of the different shrines/art installations and voted on our favourites. Of the five displays, one – from the Project Art Works collective – presented the work of neurodiverse artists. You might expect we would have all choosen this disability related display, but you would be wrong - although it did have its enthusiasts. The vote fell in favour of the installation presented by Cooking Sections on the subject of sustainable food and salmon farming, not disability. In a later unanimous vote though, it was agreed that the real highlight of the trip was the food we’d consumed over the course of the day (perhaps a gastronomic theme is starting to emerge).
Transforming Leadership artists in the Cooking Sections installation
On our return to London, we discussed the state of contemporary disability rights in the UK. We bemoaned what we felt to be a lack of momentum in recent years and reflected on the ideas of solidarity and intersectionality – inspired by the work of the collectives on display – but also noted ways in which representation and justice for disabled people generally seem to lag.
As such, the journey was more than just a tourist trip. As in an ancient pilgrimage, what was just as life changing as the visit to the holy sites was what happened on the journey itself, and the sense of community and growth of self-confidence we have since experienced as disabled artists.
*As my surname is Miller, I contemplated calling this “The Miller’s Tale”, but thought better of it since this is not nearly as rude or funny as Chaucer’s original.
Chris Miller is a retired teacher, writer and a self-described outsider artist working in painting, pottery and drawing. Utilising the visual language of art from the past, Miller places his own body and identity at the centre of his work as a way of communicating with, and fitting into the wider world and in order to explore the changes he experienced as a result of becoming disabled.
Miller is a participant of Autograph's Transforming Leadership programme in collaboration with Shape Arts, which seeks to support artists in developing their practice and creative careers. He has exhibited in group shows at the Southbank Centre, Enclave Gallery Deptford and the Stratford Arts Centre. His recent solo exhibition, Me As Venus, was on display at Nomas Projects, Dundee (2021). Miller is based in Hornchurch, Essex, and is currently studying for a MA in Health Humanities at University College London. See a selection of the artist’s work on Submit To Love Studios’ website.
Livvy manages Autograph's digital content and learning programmes. They have a particular interest in programming around queer identity and disability justice issues. Previously, Livvy has worked closely with artists and practitioners on Camden Art Centre’s education programmes.
Find out more about the project seeking to break down barriers within the creative industries and supporting artists to build creative careers as disabled, neurodiverse and barrier-facing individuals.Read more
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Part of Shape's Transforming Leadership programme, on which Autograph is proud to be a key partner.
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