Jo Verrent takes part in the Second Arts and Disability Forum
Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent flew to Mexico City last week to speak at the International Art and Disability Conference at the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. Here she reflects on her experiences meeting some of Mexico’s leading lights in disability arts, indulging in some alternative cuisine and exploring the home of personal hero Frida Kahlo.
Last week I fulfilled a long-held dream – to stand in the garden of Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City feeling the power, artistry and passion that drove her to create the work she did. Frida has dominated my arts-life since I first read about her at college. A disabled artist who hid nothing within her work or within her life, bearing all on the canvas as a means to find her place in the world.
I was over in Mexico for the second arts and disability conference as a guest of the British Council, Mexico, alongside other guests from the UK: Anjali, NDACA, Emma Shepard, speaking about Exceptional & Extraordinary, a museum-based disability arts project led by Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at University of Leicester, and Simon Wilkinson, talking about his work with VR, Oska Bright and Carousel.
The event was perfectly set in the incredible Museum of Memory and Tolerance, mapping genocide around the world and promoting increased understanding of diversity as a route for human compassion and equality. We heard from a number of politicians, policy makers, researchers and arts professionals from Mexico looking to map the current societal and artistic place of disabled artists within the country and push forward for change. Attendance was evidence of the momentum – they set for 30 people to attend the round table sessions in the latter part of day two and had to rapidly reconfigure as over 100 stayed to look at concrete proposals to shift the museums, arts and policy positions.
In my presentation on Unlimited, I explained our focus on high quality work by extraordinary artists with the aim of embedding disabled artists within the cultural sector and ultimately being part of a transformation around the perception of disability. Built on the Social Model approach, I explained that I didn’t feel I ‘suffered’ from medical conditions, but instead fought barriers created by the arts and cultural infrastructure, and society in general (you can see the captioned version of our video announcement of our commission streams that I showed here, an audio described version of it here and a BSL version of it here).
The Social Model had repeatedly been mentioned by previous speakers; it’s understood as a political position in Mexico although currently delivers less in practice, due to barriers within the infrastructure. The museum itself had exemplary access – as it should, as a relatively new build. Other venues I attended had less perfect builds, although often the indomitable Mexican spirit found creative ways around such barriers!
Whilst in Mexico I had an opportunity to meet staff from Sena y Verbo, Teatro de Sordos, a long standing deaf focused theatre company which has achieved international status based on the quality of its work. Starting from a desire to utilize the creative potential of Mexican Sign Language onstage, the company create highly visual work for all ages (even one piece for 0-4 year olds) – I couldn’t wait to see their works, nor to take part in Sensorama, Teatro Sensorial Sinestesico’s performance of Colours. Unlike anything I have ever experienced before, this work took me deep on a sensual journey relying on sound, colour, taste, smell and textures, imagination and memory, placing me squarely in the centre of my own experience. It was both completely overwhelming and intensely moving. Both companies have toured within Europe but never to the UK… Something perhaps to look at?
The whole of my short trip piled sensory experiences one on top of another – eating worms, crickets and ants eggs, a six hour bus tour of the city, being serenaded by a Mariachi band, smoky mescal – everything seemed to flow, even the temporary exhibition at Frida’s House was perfect for me, showing a never before exhibited selection of her body casts and crutches alongside other elements of her wardrobe – clothes, jewellery, make up. I also met representatives from two groups of blind photographers – Mexico is rich with them – and picked up a couple of great books and links: ‘Ojos que Sienten’ (‘Eyes that Feel’), ‘Epic of a Quirky Heart’, focusing on the incredible work of Pedro Miranda, ‘The Blind Photographer’, and ‘El Hilo Negro’.
As I unpack, I’m starting to map out what’s next. There is real potential for partnerships with Mexico City, and I’m sure this is one journey that is only just beginning.