Rachael Gadsden

“It took me a while to realise I was meant to be an artist” – Rachel Gadsden discusses her route into art, talking openly about disability and sharing human stories

Rachel Gadsden is an acclaimed artist whose work explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope, drawing on her own personal experience of living with a chronic hereditary lung condition and visual impairment. She was made an Honorary Doctor of the University.

“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 number of years. But the smoky environment had a catastrophic effect on my health. Eventually my lungs failed completely and I had to be fitted with a syringe driver that injects me with drugs once a minute. I couldn’t tour any more, so I needed to find something new to do. I made a picture for my husband and he said, I had no idea you could paint like this. This is what you should be doing.

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Being out in the world

“For me, being an artist is about being out in the world. At first I did mainly commercial work. But I didn’t want to just make pretty pictures, so I went to art school. Then I had to find a way to make a living from my art. Going to drama school helped to teach me to be out there, rather than hiding in my studio. I think that helped make me more aware of and receptive to opportunities.

“Over the years, my work has shifted more and more into the public domain. After I did my masters in 2001, I started applying for residencies. The first was at a colliery in South Wales. Then I got an email from Hampton Court Palace saying they hadn’t had an artist in residence since Holbein and inviting me to apply. I ended up being there for a year. That led to an invitation to work with the Houses of Parliament on a project designed to raise awareness of mental health. Then I entered a competition as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and won a commission to do a project called Unlimited Global Alchemy. I went to South Africa to work with people living with HIV and AIDS, which was an incredible experience.

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Sharing human stories

“I feel a natural affinity with marginalised communities. Whether it’s those communities in South Africa, or artists with disabilities in Qatar and the Middle East, or working to create drawings and animations for the Paralympic Heritage Torch ceremony, there is something there that I’m drawn to. There’s a fragility that speaks to me. I don’t consciously live my life thinking that I might not be here tomorrow, but that awareness does underpin everything I do.

For me, art is about sharing human stories, and exploring the things that bind us together despite our differences.

Rachel Gadsden

“My work is very physical. I guess that’s my theatrical background showing through. But there’s also a part of me that thinks, I started late, I’m only going to get one chance at this, so I want to do everything – photography, film, theatre, dance, the whole lot. Now I’m starting to lose my sight, I am finding new ways to communicate my vision so I’ve started experimenting with sculpture and 3D virtual drawing.

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Talking opening about disability

“I tried to hide my disability for a long time. I thought it would stop me getting work. When I applied for the residency at the colliery, I thought they’d never give it to a person with a lung condition. My twin sister made me a padded bag for my syringe driver and I wore a loose top. But the machine I had at the time made a noise, so every minute there’d be this beep. I had to pretend I didn’t know where it was coming from! Then I started to get a bit of a public persona and I began to feel uncomfortable that I wasn’t making use of the platform I’d been given.

So I made a decision that, whenever I could, I would talk openly about disability and do what I could to improve the status of people with disabilities in society.

Rachel Gadsden

“The project you’re working on is always the most exciting. But the work I’m doing at the moment with a group of bereaved women in Jerusalem has really struck a chord with me. I’m desperate to get back there and help them to tell their stories. It’s personal too. I grew up in the Middle East and when I last went I took my Mum’s diary where she talked about visiting the same places, and some of my Dad’s photos too. They both died recently and it helped me to feel closer to them. Their stories are mingled with mine and with these women’s too. We all feel love, and we all experience loss. It brings together a lot of the ideas I’m trying to express through my work.”

With a hereditary lung condition, she’s an advocate for raising disability awareness and her work explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope.Rachel Gadsden, Honorary Doctor 2016, is an acclaimed visual artist whose work has spanned Hampton Court, the Houses Parliament and South Africa where she worked with people with HIV and aids.

Rachel is a British artist who is 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.

Enter Unlimited Global Alchemy site

Unlimited Global Alchemy ImageUnlimited Global Alchemy is an artistic commission led by British visual artist Rachel Gadsden, in partnership with South African artist/activist Nondumiso Hlwele and the Bambanani Group (Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town, South Africa).

Gadsden’s artistic process explores the physical, historical and personal experience of aspects of the human condition. Experimenting with what the artist calls a psycho-geographical approach she explored the derelict asylum Cane Hill in Surrey in 2005. In documenting the process Tim Hayton said: “Rachel’s mixed media paintings, drawings, projections and videos attempt to capture the building’s struggle to survive and its inevitable physical demise, the decay being a tangible evocation of our own psychological ephemerality.”

In 2005 Gadsden received an Artsadmin Digital Media Bursary to develop a project narrating a history of North Wales Hospital in Denbigh. Ten years after the closure of the hospital an exhibition of her artwork Beyond the Asylum was shown in Denbigh Museum and Library, North Wales (2005) and Faith Gallery, Holton Lee, Dorset (2006).

In 2011/12 Gadsden exhibited Ubuntu as part of a GV Art London Group Show ‘TRAUMA: The Art and Science of Trauma’. The exhibition was in line with GV Art’s commitment to support artists who generate meaningful collaborations and dialogues with scientists to investigate the human condition. Gadsden exhibited artwork from her initial collaboration with The Bambanini Group of Khayelitsha Township investigating the experience of living with HIV/AIDS.The exhibition also included Luke Jerram’s glass microbiology sculptures of HIV.

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In 2012 Gadsden won an award from the Arts Council’s Unlimited programme, designed to support disabled artists across the UK to create ambitious work covering all genres.

Working with the Bambanani Group in South Africa, Unlimited Global Alchemy explored the psychology and politics of HIV/AIDS through a series of collaborative artworks, film and workshops. Work from the project is now permanently exhibited in Mandela’s Walk to Freedom in Cape Town.

Luke Jennings in a Guardian review of Gadsden’s project Unlimited Global Alchemy said: “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”. A profoundly affecting reminder of our shared humanity.”

In 2012 an exhibition catalogue of Unlimited Global Academy was published by Artsadmin. containing a series of essays on the work of the artist and written accounts as well as short talking heads films (on a CD accompanying the catalogue) of the personal and political journeys made by each of the Bambanani Group Members to counter discrimination experienced by people with AIDS/ HIV in South Africa. The catalogue for Unlimited Global Academy contains a foreword by author and Oxford University African Studies lecturer Jonny Steinberg who describes the project as the “product of a highly unusual consciousness.” Steinberg, citing Gadsden’s recognition of Bambanani Group Member, Nodumiso Hlwele’s motivation to create art as a way of managing chronic illness as a starting point for the collaboration. Steinberg goes on to say: “And not just unusual… but also important. For at a purely pragmatic level, those who make public works from this particular chronic illness, AIDS – be it in the form of art or advocacy or mass campaigns – are responsible for bringing these precious pills to countless people in the first place. Aside from producing powerful works for our contemplation, Gadsden, Hlwele and the rest of the Bambanani Group are also keeping a vital political matter alive.”

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In 2013 the Qatari Government’s UK Year of Culture featured “This Breathing World”, a major solo exhibition of 54 artworks & films as part of the first ever Art & Disability Festival in the Middle East at Katara Cultural Village, Doha.

In 2015 Gadsden was commissioned by the UK Parliament to create artwork as part of ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition, which were gifted to organisations across the UK in January 2016. 18 Banners were commissioned by Parliament to celebrate 800 years since Magna Carta was sealed and the 750th Birthday of the Montfort Parliament, including 2 banners by Gadsden ‘1601 Poor Law’ and ‘1829 Catholic Emancipation Act’breaking_barriers.jpg400x326.285714286

Acclaimed artist Rachel Gadsden makes artwork that explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope, drawing on personal experience of living with a chronic hereditary lung condition and visual impairment. On the occasion of being made an Honorary Doctor of the London South Bank University (LSBU) she discusses her route into art.

Photo of artist Rachel Gadsden dressed in ceremonial gown

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 number of years. But the smoky environment had a catastrophic effect on my health. Eventually my lungs failed completely and I had to be fitted with a syringe driver that injects me with drugs once a minute. I couldn’t tour any more, so I needed to find something new. I made a picture for my husband and he said, I had no idea you could paint like this. This is what you should be doing.

For me, being an artist is about being out in the world. At first I did mainly commercial work. But I didn’t want to just make pretty pictures, so I went to art school. Then I had to find a way to make a living from my art. Going to drama school helped to teach me to be out there, rather than hiding in my studio. I think that helped make me more aware of and receptive to opportunities.

Over the years, my work has shifted more and more into the public domain. After I did a masters in 2001, I started applying for residencies. The first was at a colliery in South Wales. Then I got an email from Hampton Court Palace saying they hadn’t had an artist in residence since Holbein and inviting me to apply. I ended up being there for a year. That led to an invitation to work with the Houses of Parliament on a project designed to raise awareness of mental health. Then I entered a competition as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and won a commission to do a project called Unlimited Global Alchemy. I went to South Africa to work with people living with HIV and AIDS, which was an incredible experience.

For me, art is about sharing human stories, and exploring the things that bind us together despite our differences. Whether I’m working with marginalised communities in South Africa, or disabled artists in Qatar and the Middle East, or working to create drawings and animations for the Paralympic Heritage Torch ceremony, there is something there that I’m drawn to. There’s a fragility that speaks to me. I don’t consciously live my life thinking that I might not be here tomorrow, but that awareness does underpin everything I do.

My work is very physical. I guess that’s my theatrical background showing through. But there’s also a part of me that thinks, I started late, I’m only going to get one chance at this, so I want to do everything – photography, film, theatre, dance, the whole lot. Now I’m starting to lose my sight, I am finding new ways to communicate my vision so I’ve started experimenting with sculpture and 3D virtual drawing.

I tried to hide my disability for a long time. I thought it would stop me getting work. When I applied for the residency at the colliery, I thought they’d never give it to a person with a lung condition. My twin sister made me a padded bag for my syringe driver and I wore a loose top. But the machine I had at the time made a noise, so every minute there’d be this beep. I had to pretend I didn’t know where it was coming from! Then I started to get a bit of a public persona and I began to feel uncomfortable that I wasn’t making use of the platform I’d been given. So I made a decision that, whenever I could, I would talk openly about disability and do what I could to improve the status of disabled people in society.

The project you’re working on is always the most exciting. But the work I’m doing at the moment with a group of bereaved women in Jerusalem has really struck a chord with me. I’m desperate to get back there and support them to tell their stories.

It’s personal too. I grew up in the Middle East and when I last went I took my Mum’s diary where she talked about visiting the same places, and some of my Dad’s photos too. They both died recently and it helped me to feel closer to them. Their stories are mingled with mine and with these women’s too. We all feel love, and we all experience loss. It brings together a lot of the ideas I’m trying to express through my work.

It is with huge excitement that London South Bank University  awarded me an Honorary Doctorate for my artistic practice and vision, which was presented at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, on Monday 7th November.

http://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/rachel-gadsden-artist/

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Glass House

http://www.rachelgadsden.com/videos

https://www.kettlemag.co.uk/article/womens-season-interview-visual-and-performance-artist-rachel-gadsden

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