Women’s Season: An interview with visual and performance artist, Rachel Gadsden

Rachel Gadsden is a visual artist “exhibited internationally and who works across the mainstream and disability art sectors, presenting cross-cultural visual dialogues that consider the most profound notions of what it is to be human.”

As a promoter of human rights and champion of the disabled I was interested to hear Rachel’s views on women in the arts world. Recently Rachel has performed in collaboration with Abigail Norris at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival in a special celebration of the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I asked her what had inspired her to develop this project.

Frida Kahlo is one of my long-term artistic heroes, so it was with huge delight that I learnt I was to be commissioned to be part of the incredible GDIF Four Frida’s outdoor extravaganza in 2015. GDIF Artistic Director Bradley Hemmings and I had discussed our shared passion for Frida Kahlo’s work and her social and political vision about 5 years ago over a cup of coffee and since then it had been a hope that one day a project like this might come into fruition. My role was to create an animation that was to be projected onto a giant Frida Kahlo dress that she wore in her childhood; I regularly work with filmmaker Abigail Norris and so I commissioned Norris to co create the animation with me. This particular dress was from her childhood, a dress that had straw wings. As a 6-year-old child Frida had been so excited to receive the dress from her parents, and then equally distraught when she realized that she couldn’t actually fly in it. Wings are a reoccurring theme throughout Kahlo’s imagery, a metaphor perhaps that addressed her ongoing physical immobility due to the horrendous accident she had as a young women, in a tram crash, where her spine and leg were seriously damaged. Disability was part of Frida’s experience and as a disabled person myself, I do relate to her work, and of course she is a women too.

Have you been aware of gender discrimination within the arts world? If so can you tell us about how it has affected you in any way?

When I was at art college I remember the art tutors telling us that the art world was made up of 80% men – at the time the room was full of about 80% women. The tutors were all men at the time – I just remember thinking, well I am a woman so why would I want to hear that kind of statistic? I have no doubt there is discrimination, but my particular focus has meant that my work deals the female and male human condition so I hope to transcend discrimination. But I did make a decision a few years ago to build all female team for my projects – it sets a precedent and ultimately means that issues to do with discrimination of the sexes is on the agenda. My work is constantly layered with social and political context and is underpinned with the hope that every human being has the opportunity to have a voice and be heard within society.

Rachel Gadsden, The Four Fridas

You have been involved with projects abroad such as Qatar Art and Disability Festival in 2013 and Unlimited Global Academy. Have you been aware of the difference in recognition of women’s artistic ability within different cultures?

Women are hardly on the agenda in the Gulf artistic world and I have certainly made it my mission to try to change that too. Building all female artistic projects has meant that the female voice is central to the work, and in turn this vision does slowly contribute to bringing cultural change within the society. Interestingly many men have joined the projects, but if the roles were reversed it would be impossible for the women to take part, if men led the projects. 

With your current project Unbound Global which asks “diverse communities in the Middle East and UK to communicate senses of cultural identity through shared creative practice” have you noticed a particular voice from the different genders coming through? ie it sometimes appears that women can be self-deprecating compared to men.

Throughout history women have been depreciated and have played subservient roles within society, and to some degree that has now changed and women do have the chance to fulfil their potential as equals in the work place and home environment in some communities around the Globe. But as we learnt this week, a female lead actress recently pulled out of a Broadway Theatre performance when she learnt that her fee was half the fee of the leading man despite the play being an equal two hander dialogue! This anomaly more than describes the notion that there is still a long way to go to make sure that women are seen as equals in society. In the Middle East world women are to some degree still seen as inferior beyond the home environment and through creativity,sub conscious self-deprecating voices emerge that are incredibly revealing.

Your Al Noor~Fragile Vision project which you have worked on for the last two years explores society’s openness of disability with an aim of changing the way disabled people are recognised in the Middle East. Can you explain the reaction to you and your exhibition from the Middle Eastern women at the exhibition?

The reaction to the Al Noor – Fragile Vision project has been incredible, and extremely empowering for the many women who have taken part in the project too. The opportunity to share their voices publically has meant that for these disabled women their identities and stories can become part of the social and political agenda in the Middle East countries where the work is seen.

I am also delighted that I have recently been invited to be a panellist at an event at Parliament on 17th Sept entitled “The coming of age of the Disability Discrimination Act?” 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995. The legislation promotes civil rights for Deaf and disabled people and protects them from discrimination. The Panel will address:

How has the Act impacted people’s lives? Will the Act’s 21st birthday be something to celebrate? This conversation is as important in the UK as elsewhere around the Globe.

What are your next artistic involvements?

I am currently working on a project with Freewheelers Theatre and Digital Media Company on a theatre production that is using Nelson Mandela fight for freedom as a means to explore current needs to fight disability discrimination and freedoms. I am also working on a project entitled A Tale of Two Cities which is uniting Liverpool and Manchester through the planting of fields of wild flowers to change the social landscape of parks etc. I may be teaming up with Everton Football Club to create a series of large outdoor murals in Everton park to be created in collaboration with young emerging disabled and none disabled footballers.

Finally I have recently been selected to present at AWID’s International Forum in 2016.  13th Forum, which will take place in Brazil on the theme “Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice” from 5-8 May 2016.

AWID The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) is a global, feminist membership organization. For over 30 years they have been a part of the incredible ecosystem of women’s rights movements working to achieve gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights worldwide. See more here.

I am excited to have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with 2000 women and men from around the world who share commonalities and hope to find ways our individual practices can bring cultural change to our society. I am particularly lucky that this happens through creativity for me.

Rachel Gadsden, Al Noor Fragile Vision Exhibition,Dadafest 2014, Liverpool,

Rachel Gadsden is a multi-award winning artist who has a BA and MA in Fine Art; she was artist for Hampton Court Palace 2008 – 2009, and has undertaken 4 major commissions for UK Parliament (2009 – 2015). London 2012 Cultural Olympiad commissions followed – Unlimited Global Alchemy and Starting Line. In 2013 Gadsden represented the UK, creating “This Breathing World” for Qatar – UK Year of Culture 2013, for British Council and Qatari Government, HRH Prince Charles formally opened the exhibition. Further 2013 commissions were Talking Souls with BC South Africa & Cube of Curiosity with Marc Brew for Liberty Festival.

In 2014 Gadsden created a digital artwork with Norris for UK & Sochi, Winter Paralympic Torch Lighting. Gadsden also embarked on Al Noor ~ Fragile Vision, a multi-cultural collaborative UK and Middle East project and she recently completed 14 Stations of the Cross paintings for St Joseph’s Cathedral, Abu Dhabi. Gadsden was awarded the National Diversity Award 2013: Positive Role Model for Disability was shortlisted for the European Diversity Awards, Hero of the Year 2014 and won Breakthrough UK – National Independent Living Award “Influencing disabled people’s participation in society” 

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