Art exhibit expresses diverse stories of disability — together

An art exhibit at the Hamilton Public Library is exploring the diverse experiences of people with disabilities, to tell a story that its curators say often goes untold.  

It's co-curated by Shanthiya Baheerathan, a co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, and Constanza Farias, a member of its youth action council. 

Baheerathan said they wanted to reflect people's personal experiences through a larger historical narrative. This way individual stories would be told together. 

Part of the exhibit — Not (Just) Disabled Bodies: Past(s) and Present(s) — is a timeline on legislation against people with disabilities or those labelled "unfit." 

It includes injustices in Canada's history, like abuses at the Huronia site in Orillia — the oldest institution for people with developmental disabilities in Ontario, which was shut down in 2009. 

Baheerathan visited the site this year with a friend to see the unmarked graves where people were buried. 

"Institutions existed all over Canada," she said. "You don't realize...very few people talk about it."

The timeline also includes a "history of resistance" that people have carried forward against injustices. 

"You kind of start to see how the systems are constructed when you see these alternate narratives and histories," she said. 

While the work aims to put these stories in the public's eye, Baheerathan said going through the process made her feel like the gap of knowledge of mistreatment is even wider that she thought. 

"If these histories are what I'm able to access through institutional documents, then there's so much more that could have been erased," she said.

"We move through the world knowing that what's written in the textbooks isn't true...but to be able to place that narrative on the wall, and also grapple with the fact that even we don't know...you start realizing why there's histories of mistrust against larger systems."

Christine Rankin

Putting art in a public place, Baheerathan says, means that people who were unable to participate or didn't know about the project can still experience it. 

The exhibit also includes a photo-essay and a piece on black disabled persons who have "died at the hands of law enforcement." Artist Sahra Soudi printed the names of those killed on fabric. 

The organization also reached out to the community for stories. Farias said they wanted to reflect a "collective consciousness" on ableism and what it would mean to live with disability "freely." 

"We got a lot of response from the community. Reading all of those comments about what abelism means for them, for everybody in their life...it's so much more than just a concept or a buzzword," she said. "It becomes so real."

Christine Rankin

She said while there is a uniqueness to each person's experience, the art shows common threads between them. 

Farias gathered text and overlapped it with images and time lapse videos to convey the feeling of the words. She said that seeing it all come together was an emotional, eye-opening experience.  

And by creating a collective video, Baheerathan said, the artwork calls out systems that are disabling — not the individuals. She said it also shows hope that "there can be a world where people with disabilities can be free to be." 

Farias says they hope to apply for grants so that they can further support disabled artists and their voices. 

The exhibit will up at the central branch until January.