A dance troupe looking into different directions They are wearing uniformed clothing

Unlimited heads to East Asia: Reporting on a ten day research trip to China

What’s it like for disabled artists in China? Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, went to China to scope out possibilities and contacts, meet people and projects and seemingly eat a great deal of amazing food…

British Council in China is planning a Year of Inclusion in 2019. My 10 days there were aimed at looking at the appetite for work, finding partners, assessing access and generally getting a better sense of the cultural similarities and differences to ensure that when we suggest work or projects we are making the best fit possible.

So who did I meet and where did I go? Accompanied by brilliant support from Dani Wu and others in the British Council Arts teams across China, and equally amazing company and support from Joanna Dong, from Performance Infinity which work in both UK and China, we covered 4 cities in 10 days, with a pretty packed itinerary.

Beijing

After a dinner meeting the team and also Lucus Wang who runs Inside-Out Theatre and who was heading off to Norway, my first full day began by meeting Mr Guo Liqun, Director General, Department of Publicity and Cultural Activities at the China Disabled Persons’ Federation along with the vice president of the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe – the ones famous for their part in the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony. There is large scale formalised provision funded by government for disabled people to engage with the arts led by the Federation across the whole of China working in both performance and visual arts with artists who have incredible levels of skill, yet this is not quite linking in to the contemporary cultural sector or developing into independent artistic careers as yet.

This was followed by a meeting at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism with Mr Hong Ning, Head of Western European Affairs, Bureau for External Cultural Relations. This was extremely positive and I came out feeling hopeful that accessibility and increased opportunities for disabled artists were moving higher up the agenda.

Meetings with disabled artists and activists followed – One plus One (a pan-impairment programme including from radio work with visually impaired people), and a representative from a disabled women’s arts collective. In China it is still common for many hotels to refuse guide dogs and other service dogs entry so finding somewhere to host the meeting was in itself a learning curve for my Chinese collegues.

I managed to fit in both a talk session for British Council staff and a public talk where I also met representatives from Shape of Language Deaf Art Group, Beijing 707 N-Theatre / Xintiandi Fesitival, Hua Dan, who work using forum techniques with migrant workers, and others. It was the first sign language interpreted talk British Council in China had run and we were all delighted that deaf artists not only attended but have great plans to develop their work in the future.

A group of people talking around a table. Most are of Asian descent. there is also a guide dog resting on the floor.
Photo by Dani Wu

Chengdu

Here we had a trip out of the city to the incredible Zhi Art Museum to meet with Wesley Chen, Managing Director to discuss possible artists and works that might be a good fit for this incredible venue which sits between urban and rural, land and sky and focuses on work that ‘fuses human inspiration and high technology … to inform our expectations of the future’ – and a rest day for me to catch up on sleep.

Then it was off to the Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe in Chengdu where I could find out more about entry and exit routes into the more government funded activities and where we were lucky enough to catch some rehearsals – of both large scale and small scale performance work. We then got caught in the localised flooding when visiting Sichuan University to talk with Professor Jiao Yang – but luckily the local hot pot warmed us up (its not called ‘hot’ pot for nothing).

Guangzhou

My stay here began by meeting both the programme director and manager of Guangzhou Opera House – a massive new arts building which good access and huge potential – followed by a tour of The Children’s Palace – a programme that runs in many cities offering opportunities to children and young people including disabled people. Here we saw some fantastic work in one of their arts studios that operates for disabled artists. Similar barriers exist here as in the UK, with superb work not always finding its way to an audience of visual arts enthusiasts but instead being shown with an ‘educational’ or therapeutic framing instead.

We had lunch with staff from the Children’s Palace and also Ms Bonnie Liao from both Shenzhen Association for Families with Person with Intellectual Disabilities and Shenzhen Autism Society who gave me interesting – and contradictory! – opinions on what they felt China needed to increase access for disabled artists. It was a privilege to meet people not afraid to argue with me, each other and the traditional government stance on the issues.

The next day we met the chief curator of public programmes at the Times Museum which hosts innovative performative and community based interventions as well as installations and other contemporary and conceptual works, and met with the Guangzhou Institute for Civil Service to talk about their inclusive arts festival and programmes around increasing the employment of disabled people, including in the arts.

A group of artist sketching and painting their artowrk
Photo by Jo Verrent

Shanghai

The final stop of the tour was no less busy with meetings with the president and director of programmes at Shanghai International Arts Festival which is the only state-level arts festival in China, involving performance, exhibitions, experimental work, arts education, work in non arts venues and a strand called RAW (Rising Artists Work) for emerging artists most of which include work from both China and overseas.

This was followed by an animated conversation in BSL, International sign and Chinese sign language with members of the Shanghai Deaf Film Art Festival and a visit to and meeting at the Power Station which is an independent visual arts gallery designed to rival the likes of Tate Modern, again with good physical access for disabled people within the planning but not always within the exhibits, furnishings or backstage areas. It was like so many places in China – the access conversation is a relatively new one here.

Finally, British Council hosted a training workshop using Unlimited’s #CardsforInclusion (which launch this autumn). It was a session for a group of 25 attendees from across the British Council in China and Taiwan and people from the cultural sector including representatives from the Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai International Dance Centre, ED-ABILITY Center for Child Development, WABC (World of Art Brut Culture) and The Centre for Embroidery Art, a social enterprise in Wuxi working with deaf artists. We spent the afternoon looking at innovative ways to remove and overcome barriers to arts engagement in a whole host of likely and unlikely scenarios.

So what next? There is lots of potential for exchanges, tours and programmes with China – and also many barriers (as I mentioned, access for disabled people is a relatively new concept, although we were pleased to find out that the first show with a sign language interpreter in Shanghai is next week so 30 deaf people will get to access ‘Kinky Boots’!).

The situation in China is different to that in the UK – for the arts, for disabled people, and around the boundaries of what can and can’t be shown and shared publically. It’s a fascinating challenge to consider what might work. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be creating some suggestions for plans which we can discuss further with the delegation coming over from China to Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival.

Now, where can I take them for dumplings?

A piece of art taking from the Children Palace. The faces in the pictures are replaced by coins with all different numbers
Photo by Jo Verrent