‘Gadsden is creating an artwork with frantic speed, fighting her own real-life fight against the dying of the light. In the act of painting, she tells us, she is “living in the second”.’
Luke Jennings, The Guardian Luke Jennings – Guardian Observer Newspaper
Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Rachel Gadsden: I am a disabled and visually impaired visual and performance artist and director. Expressionist in artistic approach, I create solo and collaborative art commissions and social engagement projects, nationally and internationally, through painting, performance, digital film and animation, with the object of developing cross-cultural dialogues considering universal notions of humanity.
At the core of my practice are concerns as to how humankind comes to terms with mortality: by unearthing the unseen, making the invisible visible. Part of that process is about being open about impairment, and working to empower others through creativity to find a voice with which to challenge stigma. Ultimately my work is underpinned by themes of fragility and resilience, a shared and positive sense of survival in the face of chronic health conditions, and the politics and myths surrounding disability.
I grew up in the Middle East and only visited my first exhibition when I was 18 years of age. It took me a while to realise I was meant to be an artist. My first diploma was in drama and I worked as an actress for a couple of years touring in theatre productions.
Disability has been a lifelong experience. I was born with a genetic condition that affects my capacity to breathe easily, and notions of fragility are part of my life. I spent much of my youth in hospitals in the Middle East precariously surviving regular resuscitations, this has continued to be part of my adult experience too. A syringe driver worn permanently has, for the last 29 years, injected me minute by minute with medication to facilitate breathing and support my daily survival. I now twice monthly also receive regular immunoglobulin human antibody transplant treatments and these will continue for the rest of my life.
15 years ago, I was diagnosed with retinoschisis, and was registered severely visually impaired. Despite the devastating reality of this diagnosis, I quickly grasped the notion that my “vision” transcended far beyond my ability to see through my eyes, and with this newfound awareness my “vision” expanded in directions that I could never have been predicted and I set about creating and delivering ground-breaking artistic projects, which engage participants and audiences globally.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
RG: Oh gosh, there are so many influences, and the list of influences changes and expands all the time. I regularly return to the post-war existentialist artists, including French artist Jean Fautrier, Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, aka Wols, Francis Bacon, the quintessential Existentialist artist, and so many more. I am a research-based artist, and although I rarely create preparatory drawing, I do research my topics extensively and I seek out appropriate historical and contemporary artists work to understand how they have approached a similar subject. I also go to the theatre whenever I can, it is a shared passion of my husband and mine, and there is no doubt the theatre really does influence my work enormously. I make work about people so I suppose that is why I am drawn to theatre. I am a passionate drawer and Michelangelo’s late delicate ‘Crucifixion’ drawings, and Rodin, Giacometti’s drawings often work influence my drawing approach.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
RG: I think of myself as a narrative, figurative artist, a storyteller perhaps, I am concerned with the human condition. The physical struggle and energy of the body’s processes as it stays alive is constant in my work, a manifestation, perhaps, of my own struggle to breathe and visually utilized as a metaphorical reference for universal struggle.
Reading Kafka’s Diaries clarified for me that I should no longer hide my personal identity or disability. Ultimately the consciousness of struggle was already so evident in the artworks I was creating, but my overriding motivation constantly remains to catch a sense of the universal human condition, rather than just my own.
Franz Kafka wrote in his diary on October 19th 1921 –
“Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…..but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.”
So, for me, being an artist is about being out in the world. I began my art career by creating mostly decorative artworks for private and commercial environments. But I knew I really wanted to deal with far more challenging subjects, so at the age of 30 I went to art school and gained a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 1998 and received an AHRB Award to study for an MA in Fine Art at City and Guilds of London Art School in 2000. I also studied for a diploma in art and anatomy at University College London Medical School, regularly drawing from anatomical specimens and cadavers.
Julien Bell wrote in 2002 about my artwork for my Whispers in the Dust Solo Exhibition, at the Institute of Child Health, Wellcome Trust, April/May 2001 –
Rachel Gadsden’s paintings get under your skin. That’s not a comfortable feeling: the blurts and leaks and clots of her handiwork are all too reminiscent of body processes over which we keep only a precarious adult control. Likewise, the butcher’s-block palette, with its fatty yellows and liverish purples, undermines any feelings of aesthetic detachment; it’s as if you’re being turned inside out, dragged through your own viscera. And yet this is art, the work of a considered and skilled intelligence, and as you attune to it, its complexities of hue and marking emerge as rich and lyrical. The attack of Gadsden’s work comes from its ambition. In common with many emerging artists, she is looking for new kinds of depth in painting, for fresh ways that it could symbolize shared truths. She finds such elements – the tug of system against flux, of selfhood against mortality – in her close (both practical and personal) experience of medicine. Drawing on the examples of post-war Parisian pioneers like Wols and Fautrier, but also touched by the comic-sad tone of 1990s abjection, this is anatomical art for a new age: not so much an analysis, as an analogue of the stuff beneath our skins.
(Julian Bell is an artist and author books including Ways of Drawing: Artists’ Perspectives and Practices, 2019, VAN GOGH: A Power Seething, 2015, What is Painting? 1998. He is art critic and reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters and The Guardian).
Over the years, my work has shifted more and more into the public domain. After I did my Masters degree in 2001, I started applying for art residencies. The first was at a colliery in South Wales and I went on to explore many derelict Asylum hospitals in UK too –
Then out of the blue I received an email from Hampton Court Palace saying they hadn’t appointed an artist in residence at the Palace since Holbein and they had found my work online, and I was invited me to apply for the position. I was appointed and spent an incredible year at the Palace, culminating in a fabulous solo exhibition. That led to an invitation to work with the Houses of Parliament on a project designed to raise awareness of mental health issues. Many public and private commissions followed until 2011, when I entered a competition as part of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Cultural Olympiad. I was awarded one of the 5 International Unlimited commissions to undertake a project called Unlimited Global Alchemy in collaboration with the Bambanani Group of Khayelitsha Township, who are survivors living with HIV and AIDS, in South Africa.
RB: Can you say something more about your collaborative project, Unlimited Global Alchemy?
RG: I applied to the Unlimited fund having seen the fleeting glimpse of a body map created by Nondumiso Hwele at the Archaeology and Anthropology Museum, Cambridge. At the time I had no idea who had painted the artwork, but in the body map Nondumiso had wrapped a bandage around her lung, and seeing the broken lung, I was driven to go on a journey to find her, knowing somehow, that we might just share a sense of humanity.
I had no doubt that Nondumiso was a survivor, and I hoped to reach out through creativity to share stories with others, as a means of empowerment for other vulnerable individuals, and to highlight the notion that every single person in the World should have free medical treatment, if it is needed. I am conscious every day of the fact that without the NHS support that I receive in UK, I would not be alive. Everyone should have a right to lead a fulfilling life whether or not they have chronic medical conditions.
Artists Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani Group explore the psychology and politics of HIV/AIDS. An Unlimited commission.
Unlimited Global Alchemy began life in Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town through a residency in collaboration with the Bambanani artist-activist Group (SA). Over six exciting weeks a large number of drawings, sketchbooks and paintings were created, and a series of portraits directed by myself and created in collaboration with filmmakers Deborah May and Cliff Bestall. At the heart of this life-affirming and timely collaboration is a celebration of survival against the odds.
Writer Ann Young visited and reviewed one of the exhibitions of the Unlimited Global Alchemy commission hosted at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge where I had first seen Nondumiso’s artwork, and gave a great insight into the ambitions and context of the collaborative cross-cultural project – http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/unlimited-rachel-gadsden-unlimited-global-alchemy
RB: Your project, It was Paradise (2017-2019), was a collaboration between yourself and Palestinian artist Ali Saied Ashour, together with other emerging Palestinian artists, which considered the effects upon the individual and community of the sense of isolation and abandonment arising from physical and psychological confinement. What was the inspiration and aim of this project?
RG: In 2015 I was invited to undertake a research project by Suha Khuffash and British Council, Palestinian Territories with the aim of potentially creating a collaborative project that would engage disabled artists in the region. It was during this trip that I first met Ali Saeid Ashour and Hossam Khdair. The initial research trip enabled me to undertake workshops across the whole of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley area, and gave me the opportunity to gain an essential insight into the complex and difficult local environment caused by the military occupation and conflict, and to develop key contacts that would prove fundamental for the duration of a future project and its success.
In 2017, once again I received an International Fund award from Unlimited which enabled me to create It was Paradise. This was a collaboration between UK and Palestinian artists, located in London, Liverpool, the West Bank and Gaza, which considered the effects upon individual and community of the sense of isolation and abandonment arising from physical and psychological confinement. Inspired by the theme of Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Under Siege’, the object of my artistic collaboration above all was to cultivate hope, by the creation of visceral visual artwork, & digital films.
Taking a psycho-geographical approach we addressed global concerns about: migration, the lingering flight of refugee, disabled and bereaved people. What it is to survive and to be human? What it is to empower and create a voice?
Israeli occupation in war-torn Palestine has brought much bereavement and disability to the region. For disabled people injustice and restriction is a daily recurrence. A key motivation in working with a group of Palestinian artists has been to support the cultivation of hope through creativity in the land where I spent much of my childhood.
I utilised my strong network of arts contacts in the UK and Middle East to get the artwork and talent that brought It was Paradise to life, the exposure and recognition it deserved in galleries, exhibitions and spaces in the UK, Jordan and Palestine. The project’s work with the Jerusalem Bereaved Women’s Group received a public platform in September 2017 at the recently opened Palestine Museum in Bir Zeit, outside of Ramallah, as part of its inaugural exhibition, “Jerusalem Lives”.
In addition, three films were shot and edited by Palestinian filmmaker Isra’ Odeh – It was Paradise introduces the commission.
RB: Many of your projects involve a cross-cultural visual dialogue with displaced, impaired or traumatised peoples (refugees, the bereaved, the disabled, for example) exploring both the fragility and celebration of life. How important is community engagement in the creation of your works? Can you say more about this?
RG: The main objective of my work is to explore the universal human condition so I have always felt it is necessary to leave the protective environment and safety of my art studio and my interior world to learn about how others live and feel, otherwise the work may just be about my personal experience. I suppose I feel a sense of responsibility to use my role as both a disabled person and successful artist to contribute to bringing cultural change. Through my engagement projects I has created opportunities for thousands of vulnerable, disabled and disempowered individuals across the World. I have empowered many to find a voice through creativity, and these voices are now acknowledged and heard within their communities and the wider society.
Key to my “vision” is addressing disability, women and human rights issues, always hoping, as a Disabled leader, to contribute to breaking down the enormous barriers that many disabled and vulnerable individuals experience at home, in the work place and within society. My work has gained attention from Ministries, Politicians and public and private stakeholders across the World, creativity is my tool and the conduit to open dialogues at all levels. But I am forever conscious that nothing would be possible without the support I receives from both my artistic collaborators, funding partners and the many supporters of my vision. My work certainly deals with often tragic and very difficult subjects, but underpinning the process is the aim to continue to find and have hope. My personal health situation has taught me over and over again that without hope there really is nothing.
RB: Can you say something about your work, Lost at Sea, which engages with ‘vision’ in its more metaphorical meaning, and also about your recent series of works, Deluge 2020?
RG: If I am honest, I suspect all my work is metaphorical. My Masters dissertation explored and considered the use of metaphor in twentieth century art. I am currently working on a British Academy Funded Commission, “Narratives of Displacement” led by Dr Yafa Shanneik and the University of Birmingham. I have been commissioned to collaborate with Iraqi and Syrian Refugee Women who are sharing their challenging migration journeys, in Germany, UK and Jordan. Hearing the women share many horrendous frightening escape journeys, to only find themselves in over-crowded refugee camps, where simple things like hygiene and basic sanitary conditions are truly dreadful. These are very proud women, there feel they have nothing. And of course, there is nothing I can do about this but I can draw attention to their plight.
When I was told I was losing my eyesight, I became lost at sea – I had no idea if I would be able to continue practising as an artist. I would never compare my situation with the enormity of the refugee women’s tragic situation, but there is certainly the sense that I am considering how individuals do survive, both physically and psychologically through my work.
Isolated now in my studio for perhaps a year or more, due to my medical condition, and after years of creativity, and working in conflict regions, where social, economic and political challenges are a part of everyday life, I continue to be inspired and to try and understand just a little more each day about the human condition. All of these thought-provoking narratives are now inspiring me to work on a new body of work called Deluge. I am attempting to make new ambitious drawings, paintings, digital animations, and a “live” art and sound performance, in collaboration with composer Freddie Meyers, violinist Emily Earl and sign performer Stacey Stockwell, with the aim to explore a new consciousness: the ongoing threat of a global pandemic, of conflict and war, to contemplate the new-found fractured nature of this world.
All images copyright and courtesy of Rachel Gadsden
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