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by Ann M. Fox

Associate Professor of English,
Davidson College
Co-curator of RE/FORMATIONS

Professor Fox specializes in twentieth-century dramatic literature and disability studies. Her teaching interests include modern drama, disability in literature, feminist theater, contemporary American multicultural drama, performance theory, and women writers. Her scholarship has traced the rise of feminist sensibilities in American commercial theater; her articles on playwrights Rachel Crothers and Sophie Treadwell have been published in Text and Presentation, while her study of Dorothy Parker’s playwriting appears in the volume The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker. More recently, her work on disability and performance has been published in Contemporary Theatre Review, the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, and the book Gendering Disability. She has served on the executive board of the Society for Disability Studies, and was an American Association of University Women American Postdoctoral Fellow for 2003-2004. Her current book project traces the representation of disability on the twentieth-century commercial stage. Dr. Fox is also the coordinator for the Gender Studies Concentration at Davidson College.

I am not one of the able disabled—

I’m the first cell divided
I’m the mud that talks
I’m Eve  I’m Kali
I’m The Mountain That Never Moves
I’ve been forever    I’ll be here forever
I’m the Gimp
I’m the Cripple
I’m the Crazy Lady

I’m the Woman With Juice

                  ---from “I Am Not One of The” by Cheryl Marie Wade (1987)

Leaving Venus Behind: The New Intersections of Disability, Women, and Sculpture

Consider the word titling this exhibition: Re/Formations. Its back is broken, the prefix at once separate from but connected to the root. You look at the word in a new way; it's the same word, but not the same. Possible ways of fragmenting it suddenly become apparent; the text is not naturally fixed, but fluid, malleable, possible in different directions. That slash, disfiguring and reconfiguring, at once makes visible the word’s indeterminacy and expresses playful possibility. This is the way we invite you to enter Re/Formations: Disability, Women, and Sculpture. There are many things that are reformed and re-formed, ameliorated and reshaped, by virtue of this groundbreaking exhibit.

We might feel ourselves to be post-identity in visual representation, exhausted by the consideration and reconsideration of identity in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century art. The fragmented body, theorized out of material existence, deployed as a metaphor for modern life and anxiety, is a familiar trope to us; but while we’re conversant with cyborgs, we shun dialogue with disability. We're used to asking how race, gender, age, and sexual orientation intersect with our understanding of who an artist is and what she is trying to invite us to contemplate. Yet despite a vibrant new movement in disability arts, despite the way in which disability images and disability identity permeate art history, for many of us, the intersection of disability and art, beyond metaphor, only exists as art therapy or rehabilitation. 

Re/Formations, the first exhibit of its kind, was born of the desire to explore the intersection of disability and female identity as expressed through the medium of sculpture. And indeed, for a moment, consider the idea that the intersection of disability, female identity, and sculpture is one with which we are already familiar. For what is the most recognizable image of womankind in classical sculpture if not the Venus de Milo, her lovely limbs amputated? Flash forward across time to Mark Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant, put on display in Trafalgar Square from 2005-2006. The over eleven-foot Carrera marble statue is a nude representation of its heavily pregnant subject, a contemporary British painter who was born with phocomelia (the shortened development of limbs). Maternity and implicit sexuality here intersect with disability identity, on prominent display at a world crossroads.

While both have beauty and dignity, it is tempting to see these two examples as endpoints on a continuum of progress, one that would frame Re/Formations as a culmination: where the sculptural depiction of disabled femininity is concerned, surely we’ve come a long way, baby? But now, consider a somewhat different idea: that these sculptures are more similar than not, and not in completely comfortable ways. Both render bare a maelstrom of ideas and emotions about art, identity, disability, and gender. In our imaginations, we fill in the Venus de Milo’s arms, as disability studies scholar Lennard Davis suggests, to preserve our sense of her wholeness, and therefore her place in our minds as the ideal of classical beauty. Even when we cannot deny the reality of impairment, does either sentimentality over the maternal role, or outrage over political correctness run amok (both reactions to Quinn's statue) similarly let us escape engaging our more complicated feelings about disability? And what would disabled women have to say on the subject of their own identity through sculpture, anyway? Where both these works are concerned, there is still a present absence: that of the disabled woman artist.

And so Re/Formations, like much of the new disability art,moves into that maelstrom and attempts to bring together several kinds of conversation at once.  Influenced by both the academic discipline of disability studies and the disability rights movement, it premises, to begin with, that disability is an identity.  It is not necessarily an identity that all the artists in this exhibit share, did claim, or do claim.  Yet even that is important; to understand disability as an identity is to acknowledge it as contested, variegated, multifaceted, and unowned by anyone; this makes it align to our evolving understanding of race, gender, or sexuality.  What is more, this exhibit is also premised on the idea that to explore disability and female identity in concert with one another is a critically important project, largely because these identities, while not identical, hold so much in common.  Women and the disabled have been relegated to secondary status in society, cast as those excessive and unruly bodies against which the normate defines itself.  As feminist disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explains:

Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies.  Both the female body and the disabled body are cast within cultural discourse as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a valued norm which is assumed to possess natural corporeal superiority.  (279)

In true divide-and-conquer fashion, normate society has turned these identities against each other: women have been medicalized as “hysterical,” while disabled people have been defined as “feminized” (at least to the extent that “feminization” is equated with passivity and silence).  And so, this exhibit draws particularly on feminist disability studies, which specifically engages gender and disability in conversation.  Perhaps nothing binds female and disability identities so very tightly as the fact that both are heavily policed by Western cultural ideals of physical normalcy, ideals that moved late in the nineteenth century from abstractions to standards.  Re/Formations asks: what do the identities of disability and female identity—as they meet and are manifested in sculpture—thus have to say to one another?

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