Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed exceptional work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences, and shift perceptions of disabled people. It is delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with funding from Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, British Council and Spirit of 2012.
In 2016 an Arts Council England’s Ambitions of Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. The first case study looked at Unfixed, a creative research project that explored the intersections of art, disability, and technology involving ten disabled artists from the UK and Australia. The second was about two international producer placements held with Unlimited in 2016.
The global cultural sector needs to be transformed in relation to access and equality, in part by increasing the number of international exhibition opportunities for disabled artists. This case study focuses on the first Unlimited International touring partnership, a collaborative touring exhibition featuring the work of three Japanese visual artists that took place across the United Kingdom between August 2016 and March 2017.
Nama Āto: Japanese Outsider Art was a collaborative exhibition that presented the UK debut of three Japanese visual artists, Koji Nishioka, Makoto Okawa and Yasuyuki Ueno. Each of the selected artists are members of Atelier Corners, a social welfare facility in Osaka, Japan, which supports disabled artists to realise their potential. It was produced by Unlimited, in partnership with Outside In and Atelier Corners to showcase extraordinary visual art works by disabled artists and stimulate interest in Unlimited International as a programme.
Outside In provides a platform for artists who see themselves as facing barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. They were brought in as a partner because of their expertise in exhibition preparation, curation and support for disabled artists, and to produce the marketing and interpretation materials to accompany the exhibition.
Nama Āto was toured across the UK in 2016 and 2017; first to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in August 2016, to an estimated 5,304 visitors, then to Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival in September 2016, where an estimated 5,400 people saw it. Here, the artists also took part in a live drawing session and public talk, which was well attended. The third venue was the Unlimited Festival in Tramway, Glasgow in October 2016, which had an estimated 5,304 visitors and the final venue was Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre, January to March 2017, bringing the total audience to 21,108 visitors.
Two of the artists, Koji Nishioka and Yasuyuki Ueno, as well as Atelier Corners’ director and curator, visited London to see their exhibition as part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival. Makoto Okawa’s mother took his place on the trip and was joined by support staff. During their stay they engaged in a number of professional visits and meetings.
What was learnt? What worked well?
The selected artists displayed a range of stylistic qualities. We saw Koji Nishioka’s intuitive music scores that relate to existing compositions, but which a pianist may not easily be able to read; the late Makoto Okawa’s depictions of happiness, sadness and pleasure in the forms of ‘makoot’ dolls and colourful drawings; and Yasuyuki Ueno’s world of female figures and fashion objects, characterised by a strong, yet strange sense of beauty.
It was noted that the exhibition was extremely well managed, thanks to the expertise of each of the partnering organisations. The work was very well received across all of the galleries it was shown at, and was featured in a wide range of local media. It was reviewed by Disability Arts Online’s Joe Turnbull: “The work of the three artists seems unrelated thematically, yet they sit together quite comfortably in terms of aesthetic and approach… if this exhibition proves anything, it’s that we need to see more work by learning-disabled artists in mainstream contexts.”
As one visitor stated, “Loved it. It’s important to know the story behind each artist. And loved having the opportunity to see them live.”
The exhibition was a success for Unlimited as it pushed the programme’s presence within the visual arts sector as well as showcasing high quality work by learning disabled artists. This, in turn, has built reach, capacity and potential for future commissions. In light of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Unlimited and Outside In’s newly established link with Japan and the Atelier Corners’ centre will be a useful relationship to build on, strengthening links between the art sectors in both countries.
Following the success of Nama Āto, artists at Atelier Corners will be working with UK artist Richard Butchins through an Unlimited International Collaboration Award to create The Voice of The Unicorn. The work will explore the alienation, silence and isolation felt by non-verbal disabled people and reflect on the differences between the way disability is experienced in Japan and the UK.
What can others learn from this?
The exhibition, and partnership as a whole, provided a useful example for new collaborative ventures of this kind between other UK artists, specialist partners, their stakeholders and other countries in the future. Using expert partners to deliver the relevant elements of projects benefits all involved.
There is a huge amount of value in showcasing high quality work for both audiences and the artists. As Jennifer Gilbert, former manager at Outside In said, “Outside In are thrilled to have been asked to showcase the work of three Japanese artists, whose extraordinary talents have not been seen in the UK before. By touring this work, more audiences will be able to see the three diverse styles and how culture plays a part in all their works.”
Beyond this, it was having the artists present, rather than just their work on its own, that was found to be most useful. As Takako Shiraiwa, Atelier Corners president explained before their trip to the UK: “There is a big difference between the upcoming exhibition in London and our previous exhibitions overseas. What is special about this time is that our artists actually see their artwork displayed with their own eyes.”
Being present in the UK allowed the artists to present their work on their own terms and engage with their audiences directly by sharing their styles and approaches to making work, live. Furthermore, being present meant that the artists were available to participate in a number of professional visits and meetings, and were able to make connections and build relationships that could lead to future commissions and exhibitions. This was inspiring for learning disabled artists in the UK to explore potential opportunities with Unlimited.
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