The materiality of Fine Art is often called into question in this present day and age.
‘Why should we take this banana on the wall seriously’, ‘this painter only does abstraction because they can’t REALLY paint’ or even, ‘why would you create something that has no function?’.
But to be honest, art has long ago ceased to just be about craftsmanship and is now about the ability to move or even transcend one’s audience.
As I lay there, half awake, I rummaged around my bed a little and found my new favourite red pen and Byzantine decorated notebook and went to work.
This was another one of those dreams that I was going to interpret and turn into an artwork.
My dreams are masterpieces of personal agony, academic research, popular news and culture, psychology, colour theory, mythos, and allegory.
The day that I can truly recreate my dreams to my expectation, is the day that I would have officially become a ‘Master’ of sorts. So it may never happen, because mastery to me seems extremely boring. Experimentation is far more interesting. That said, I’m a bit obsessive so…
I get to work on understanding my dream and how others could relate in the installation that I am planning.
1) The Personal: Blue + Red = Purple
In my dream my mother was besides herself about how ‘different’ I was to the rest of the family. I’m on the spectrum (and loud about it), I’m bisexual, I’m not conventional, I practice the traditional Yoruba religion of Ifá and not Christianity (she and all her siblings + parents are literally pastors) I’m somewhat passably attractive and yet not dating or even very social and my British accent gets stronger and ‘posher’ every time I see her, I am also extremely sex and body positive. Also, I am WAY too nice in comparison to her other kids, almost constantly being in servitude of others – this was also VERY weird to her.
So in my dream, when the whole family wore traditional blue attire and I wore purple, my Mum needed an answer and a friend and ‘elder’ came to her and said that I am borne from a similar cloth as her and the rest of the family, but that the red inside of me could not be denied or ignored. That it was part of who I am, and it was something that strengthens me.
2) The Mythological: Yemọja + Ṣàngó = Something Unheard Of
In Yorùbá mythology Yemọja is the mother of all Òrìṣà (Yorùbá Gods & Goddesses), as she suddenly birthed them all from a large body of water after undergoing distress. Ṣàngó is an offspring of Yemọja, but is the embodiment of lighting + thunder and Yemọja is the embodiment of water – a fairly chaotic mix when they come together. And this was apparently the reflection of my own internal self.
3) The Research: Environmental Instability
An aspect of my dream that reflected not only mythology but existential dread about the environment, was the submergence of the man-made Lagos Island into a tumultuous and ravishing flood. And I was being asked to enter it.
Now a significant part of Yorùbá mythos is Òrìṣà becoming overwhelmed with emotion and turning into a body of water as a result – this is what was happening in my dream.
In my dream the violence experienced by the land and the violence experienced by the bodies of women and girls in Nigeria was creating a reaction within nature. And the waters had decided to begin to swallow up humanity.
It is true, that in reality the floods in Nigeria have become so problematic that they are killing whole families, with one rush of water.
Similarly, one of the main health issues that W.African women of this particular region experience is water retention, creating high-blood pressure in otherwise healthy people, particularly women.
I guess my mind saw a connection with this.
The body retaining water - the land becoming overwhelmed with water
All because of trauma.
But I wonder about inspecting the waters, finding out what causes this instability. But I am just an artist, not a scientist. I can only critique and bring attention to – and so I try to.
4) Personal Agony: It’s just being different generally
So I’ve always been different. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a way that makes a lot of people around me frustrated. Or uncomfortable.
I’ve been popular (by accident) and I’ve always shied away from it, but this often means loneliness in order to have piece of mind.
From having fairly painful invisible disabilities to dressing completely out of place in most environments, to simply refusing to conform in order to be my most honest self.
I’ll admit that the level of vulnerability I feel calls for a constant protection, but also a level of confidence and self-esteem that I do not like to compromise on.
Which is where the solitary aspect of my individuality comes into play.
Someone else wanted my space for this exhibition, and if it was by popularity rather than a first-come-first-serve basis, it wouldn’t have happened.
And this was in my dream.
Solitary Gold, who was not popular, but who made everything look great because I refuse to fall into the pitfalls of self-pity and insecurity.
Is it shallow to always try and create beauty? Well to be very honest I don’t care, because the beauty of fashion and garment construction has always been a form of expression, and also the aspect of me that is the most heavily critiqued.
And so with all of this I create “Diasporan Wilderness”.
An intense over analysis of self, how the world interacts with myself and of the world I reside in general.
As I wade through the intense emotion needed to survive life, I wonder what would have happened if I kept dreaming and journeyed into the flood.
Does my ‘difference’ mean I’ll survive, or does it just mean I’ll experience it differently?
Through this exhibition I wanted to immerse the audience into strong feeling, via the sound of a story, through murals painted on Yorùbá adire fabric (the traditional fabric of the Yorùbá people of West Africa) , by installing instruments of worship collected at Osun’s sacred grove in Nigeria and through my use of cowrie shells scattered on the ground and adorning the bodice of the one singular garment. A garment that represents the individual borne of 2 very different worlds.
And individual that wishes to survive and tell their tale of life.
I’m not too sure how the audience felt, walking through the antiquated quad of St. John’s and entering my own personal wilderness.
There is no one way to feel.
I just hope that they felt.
This piece was first published in St Edmund Hall's Magazine 2021-2022
When I was young, I loved fairy tales. I still own the copies of The Chronicles of Narnia my grandmother gave me before her passing. I could immerse myself in the stories for hours, but like every child, I eventually put down fairy tales and moved on. Last year, I saw a copy of Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space on a library shelf at university and wondered how disability and fairy tales intersected. I decided to re-read some of the stories, using the knowledge from my disability studies course and my lived experiences as a physically disabled adult.
I read a few and came to a realisation. Princesses don’t use walking frames because (if they were anything like me) they would constantly roll over their floor-length dresses and trip; Red Riding Hood wouldn’t have made it far in the forest with her wheels constantly getting filled with mud and leaves. Cinderella wouldn’t have got away as the clock struck midnight because she would be searching for a ramp, or trying to get down the staircase and need a rest break every few steps, never mind walking in glass-heeled slippers. I am the creature that handsome princes fight, I lurk and plot and scheme, or at least that is what fairy tales want children to believe.
As a child, people my age would run away from me screaming because I have cerebral palsy and walk with a walking frame. I have a scissoring gait and awkward hands; I can be difficult to understand if I’m feeling incredibly upset or angry. It was easy for them to make me into something different, to run away screaming, “it’s going to get us!” and leave me alone, wondering why. As an adult, I have had parents tell their children not to get close to me in sharp tones, and children hide behind their parents at the sight of me. In the most extreme cases, I have had people cross themselves or refuse to touch something that I have touched. These experiences are entrenched in societal and cultural prejudices, but where do children, new and learning about this world, gain these notions?
Literature provides a lens for children to understand the world we inhabit, it is their first interaction with the terms “good” and “evil”, the “normal” and “abnormal”, the initial introduction to what is considered “right” and “wrong”. Fairy tales provide “morals on how to be a proper citizen in society” (Seider, 2020). In her review of Leduc’s book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Kuitenbrouwer (2022) states plainly, “In some way, it is story that gives us world at all” but the worlds of fairy tales are steeped in stereotypes and societal prejudice beneath their mystique. Beyond the knights in shining armour or the fanciful princesses and mystical creatures, there is a message. Disabled people are evil, disabled people are abnormal, disabled people are wrong, and disability is a punishment.
The good characters are always perfect. Princesses are beautiful beyond compare; princes are handsome and charming. Their legs don’t bend inwards like mine, they do not have limp wrists that twist their hands in awkward ways. Their mouths do not have difficulty forming words, or problems with drooling. Their hearts don’t beat too fast when standing or cause them to feel faint or dizzy. Without the love of the perfect ones, the disabled person cannot be transformed into being as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. As a child, I wondered if I needed to be defined by the love of others to be seen as something other than Other. Doctors had tried to transform me into someone almost “normal”. They taught me to walk because they thought it made me “more human”. I had to learn to twist my hands in “normal ways” and force myself to learn how to hold cutlery and write and type in ways that caused me pain because I needed to be something “other” than myself. My transformation was not complete, it could never be complete because I did not need to be transformed to have worth.
Disability as a punishment is a recurring theme. The prince becomes the Beast because of his poor behaviour, and the evil stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella have their eyes pecked out by the pigeons who helped Cinderella, blinding them. Aslan wounds Avaris’ back to remind her of her wrongdoing and can remove speech from any Talking Beast in Narnia. What does that teach children? If someone is disabled, what have they done to deserve it? If that person exhibits what society considers “good behaviour”, they’ll be cured of their disabilities. If you are not good or on your best behaviour, you will end up disabled and be forever marked as “bad”, “wrong”, or “evil”?
In fairy tales, disability can be “cured” with acts of kindness or immense love. The prince in the original Sleeping Beauty tale was “cured” of his blindness when the tears of the beautiful princess fell on his face and he was suddenly able to take up his former mantle and self after years of wandering a forest eating berries in despair. The disabled person would be “transformed” to escape their disability; the Beast turns back into a handsome prince, the Little Mermaid ends her life and her consciousness floats away in the hopes of gaining an immortal soul, and the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan, Hans the half-hedgehog, half-human becomes wholly human after he falls in love with a princess, the woman who has her hands cut off by the devil in “The Woman Without Hands” wanders the world surviving on pity and the charity of others and is cured of her disability as a “reward of faith” when she marries a king. Hodkinson and Park (2017) reflect on the theory of Harnett (2000), “This transformation of the disabled character, it is argued, shapes children to believe that disability is unrealistic and also that disabled people can be magically healed or cured.” Further, their research found that “the disabled character was either killed, missing or transformed into a ‘normal’ person within the majority of the books employing this form of ending”. This ending refers to the immortal words ‘happily ever after’, present in four of the five books Hodkinson and Park analysed to research normalcy and the perfect physical appearance.
How many disabled children feel that they can have a “happily ever after” reading about what happens to those society considers “abnormal” and “ugly”? Leduc’s book argues that fairy tales condition disabled children to look at themselves as “other”. How did those children feel when I was a child, seeing me, the “other”, a figure from a fairy tale brought to life and walking among them? How did that early lens of morality interfere with their understanding of me as a person?
Fairy tales tell me people like me will never have a happy ending. There will be no handsome prince or beautiful princess to love me and magically “cure” me, not that I needed transforming or curing in the first place. One cannot reduce the internalised negative messages towards disability to literature alone, but let’s change our outlook and make fairy tales with young disabled people as the heroes of their own stories, not through magical transformations or immense “healing” love, but through their character development and growth. We are representing ourselves in books, films and television now more than ever, and I hope that we will continue to expand in the media to truly show accurate portrayals of lived experiences of disability, so that every disabled child can have a character they can relate to and admire, so they will never feel how the disabled people before them felt.
Disabled people might not get a happy ending in the old stories, but we are writing our own stories, our endings, on and off the page.
Our stories are defined by us.
Hodkinson, A. and Park, J., 2017. ’Telling Tales’: An Investigation into the Representation of Disability in Classic Children’s Fairy Tales. Educational Futures, 8(2), pp.48-68.
Kuitenbrouwer, K., (n.d). Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Reviews Amanda Leduc's Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Available at: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/kathryn-kuitenbrouwer-reviews-amanda-leducs-disfigured-on-fairy-tales-disability-and-making-space. [Accessed on: 17th January 2023].
Leduc, A., 2020. Disfigured: On fairy tales, disability, and making space. Coach House Books.
Seider, A., (2020). EXPOSING A MISINFORMED AND DISABLED FAIRYTALE. THE SOSLAND JOURNAL 2020, p.73.
About the author:
Melanie Kennedy-Diver holds a master’s degree in Disability Studies from Liverpool Hope University and a BA (Hons) degree in Politics, Philosophy and Society from the University of Central Lancashire. She has an interest in literature and disability representations.
Thank you to Sarah for reminding me about the importance of ending this essay with optimism and to another close friend for reminding me about the necessity of maintaining hope. To you I say, thank you for everything.
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!