Jointly organised by the British Council and Qatari Ministry of Culture, the first ever Arts and Disability Festival in Qatar drew to a close on 30 March 2013 at the Katara Cultural Centre. And what a two weeks it turned out to be, with a rich and varied programme featuring six original art works commissioned through the Unlimited programme for London 2012, a series of artist talks and lots of practical workshops.
Challenge and change: arts and disability in Qatar
Talks featuring Sheikha Hissa Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani, an eminent Qatari consultant and adviser on disability issues; animator Joel Simon; dancer/choreographer Marc Brew; performer/choreographer Claire Cunningham; and visual artist Rachel Gadsden focused on their personal journey and the challenges they face in their work. A lively and frank discussion ensued, with audiences members from Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all driving home the point that disability issues need to be aired in public to affect a societal change. Qatar has several organisations which are doing great work with disabled young people and their families but there is more to do on the education side, both in schools and public domain.
Rachel Gadsden's Body Mapping workshops – a series of family-oriented painting workshops – were a big hit, and provided two hours of fun and excitement for over 70 children accompanied by teachers and parents. For some, this was the first time they had wielded a paintbrush and the resulting artwork was a riot of colour and Arabic symbolism with considerably more paint ending up on their school uniforms that the paper! But who cares? Being splattered with paint is commonplace for all budding geniuses in the art world! Enthusiasm from the teachers on how this activity can unleash the children’s artistic talent and confidence suggests a need for a separate workshop programme for school teachers so they can continue this work in the classroom.
Hosted by the Doha Film Institute, Joel Simon’s animation workshop drew an enthusiastic audience, captivated by his techniques and how he manipulated his miniature models. With only 48 hours in Qatar, Joel even managed to squeeze in a tour of a local animation studio – so watch this space! Throughout the week, there were outdoor screenings of Joel’s animated film Macropolis, a lovely tale of the adventures of two disabled toys who escape from the toy factory. Also featured were multimedia artist Sue Austin’s Creating the Spectacle, a mesmerising film documenting her performance in a self- propelled underwater wheelchair, and filmmaker Chris Tally Evan’s Turning Points, a film documenting the stories of five people with disabilities.
Week two of the Festival saw the arrival of the Marc Brew Company, with his solo piece Remember When, and Fusional Fragments, a collaboration between composer Philip Sheppard and Grammy Award-winning percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. Marc’s dancers were exquisite and precise in their execution, and Evelyn’s musical performance on stage was stunning, bringing an extraordinary dimension to the dance/music collaboration and a fitting end to the Festival on 29 March.
The two weeks just flew by and the questions on everyone’s lips are: “What now? How can we all take this forward? How can we help play a part in taking this agenda forward?” For us, it is the start of a conversation and we are just pausing for breath. The underlying reason for the Arts and Disability Festival was to draw attention to disability issues through the arts, and I think we can say that we achieved this. What needs to happen now is a period of reflection, consultation and research, with UK and Qatari artists and practitioners, so we can build on the good work that we have started.