The Flourishing project began as a collaboration between Tangled Art + Disability, the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL), and other partners. The project was conceived as a response to Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying Policy (MAiD), specifically based on the United Nations’ response to MAiD, which reminds Canadians that while policies are in place, we also need to make sure that all Canadians have access to support for full human flourishing.
Flourishing consisted of a series of four exhibitions that took place in Toronto entitled: Somehow We Stay Attuned, Somewhere We Stay Authentic, Three Windows, and Mad Ones. Flourishing features the work of seven artists from across Canada whose work addresses the complexities of what it means to flourish, and how flourishing exists in harmony with, and in juxtaposition to, suffering.
Tangled Art + Disability’s role in the project was to showcase seven Mad, Deaf, and Disability-identified artists from across Canada who in their work express the complexity and depth of what it means to flourish. When I began working on this project, I found that flourishing held an intricacy which I did not yet comprehend. The word conjured in my mind images of flowers and gardens—things which I could say were flourishing. When applied to humankind, this definition felt inadequate. Considering the diversity of our bodies, minds, and experiences, how could I compare the experiences of people to plants? With this conundrum in mind, we asked the participating artists to define flourishing for themselves, to present from their unique perspectives what this word conjured, and the challenges and rewards it posed.
When I speak about these artists flourishing, I do not mean to do so in a prescriptive sense. For example, people may experience suffering, but the experience of suffering does not preclude them from flourishing. The artists’ individual experiences of flourishing within their work and lives are a testament to their dedication and belief in their craft. Each artist’s experience exists uniquely within the concept of flourishing, and those experiences are woven together through artistic communication, be it through the use of VibroTactile technology (communication of ideas and sensations through vibration), the lyrical nature of theatre, or direct collaboration between artists. It is this artistic communication employed by the participating artists that generated excitement, interaction, and profound conversation throughout the series.
To complement their work in the exhibit, the artists were asked to interact with their home communities across Canada. They responded to this request with artist-led talks, workshops, small exhibitions, and readings. The goal of these sessions was to provide the artists with an opportunity to maintain their connection with their community and to impact it through the sharing of knowledge.
The way an artist conceptualizes flourishing is intimately entwined with the communities to which they are connected. This series highlighted the relationship between individual acts of flourishing and power—power to impact our communities, power to support one another, and the knowledge to empower ourselves.
With this expanded understanding of flourishing in mind, I posed three questions to the artists: How has the Flourishing series impacted your process as an artist? What impact did your community sessions have? Has your personal definition of flourishing shifted since the conclusion of your project?
—Yousef Abdullah Kadoura, Facilitator
When I first started exploring the concept of flourishing it was about owning and celebrating my own frailty and vulnerability so that no one else could define it for me. Progression, the work I developed for Flourishing, is a multi-sensory exploration of how individual medical data can be transformed into possibilities for human connection in order to ignite empathy rather than to find abnormalities. I invited people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) to co-create a portrait with me showing how they would like to be seen, which I then framed with their own MRI images. In one of these portraits, Manon is pictured holding up a cane in one hand and a badminton racket in another. She explains how one day when playing badminton with a friend, she felt fatigued and couldn’t stand up anymore. Feeling defeated, she sat down in the grass. A few moments later her friend sat across from her and pitched her a birdie.
I met her friend a couple weeks ago at a party and approached him with the giddy excitement of meeting a celebrity. “You’re the one in the story!” I yelped when I found out he was the character in a narrative I’d heard and shared countless times. He was genuinely surprised and taken aback—he had completely forgotten about this moment. The friend had no idea that this small gesture had made such a meaningful impact on Manon, as well as on me and on many other people who heard the story during the exhibition.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between wanting to and having to welcome people with disabilities. It seems to me that in debates around accessibility in Canada, the economic potential of people living with disabilities comes before honoring people’s right to live a dignified life.
When I think of human flourishing, I don’t see it as a process of growth, or as a measurement of an individual’s capacity for productivity. I find there is more intrinsic value, more capacity to thrive, when human flourishing shifts from an individual goal to a collective experience. My intention with Progression was to provide an opportunity for people to slow down, listen, touch and connect with the basic senses that make us human. Moving forward, I would like to expand my understanding of the multi-sensory components in Progression, such as vibrations and tactile photography to invite collective experiences of empathetic connection.
I was born in Ghana and I moved to Canada in 1994 at the age of fifteen. I am deaf. Seeing is how I get my joy in life. As an optical artist, I am always observing and reading about the art world in which I exist. In my time as an artist, I have found that there is no recognition for deaf artists. That is why I make art—it is an attempt to turn attention toward my community and to earn a living.
My work is concerned with the process of becoming aware of what my heart feels, and the connection between emotion and what colors look like. I place colors randomly on squares using Photoshop. Through this process, my thoughts keep changing and in this way I continue using different tones and colors in random patterns, or reducing the proximity of squares, until my heart feels that there isn’t anything greater I could imagine.
My colors are black and white. Black is myself; I am a black man. Black is where my heart is hiding. Black is not just a color to me; it is so much more than the shade we imagine. Black is many colors even if it is just black; you can feel warmth even if you can’t see it. White on the other hand is outside of me. White is light, white is waking up, white reveals all the colors. The colors I see are felt in a dark place where I can’t see them, but I can feel them. These colors are the way I communicate with society.
Before the Flourishing exhibit began I had a photography exhibition where I didn’t feel a true reaction from the audience. It was my biggest weakness as an artist. Flourishing provided the chance to speak with some of the audience in front of my works. It was a very emotional experience for me. Through the opportunity to participate in Flourishing, my ability to share my experiences with my audience and my community has greatly improved.
I have been a practicing interdisciplinary artist since 1996. My practice is autobiographical, fusing traditional mediums with more contemporary ones. My work is informed by elements of feminist, queer, and trans theory, pop culture, technology, the monstrous, the abject, psychoanalysis, performance and found object art, the surreal, the banal, and the absurd.
The Flourishing project was an opportunity for me to open myself up in new, challenging ways, and provided an environment in which to infuse dialogues with deeper meanings related to my own issues of madness, otherization, and disability in broad, expansive ways. As a “mad” trans artist of muted mixed First Nations heritage, my struggles with a complex diagnosis of mental illness and ASD has always been a burden to me in the past—a frustratingly difficult, even insurmountable subject, which I would often omit from conversations with colleagues in traditional “white cube” gallery environments.
While I have endured and prospered in the face of self-censorship, to dialogue openly about my disabilities, unpack their meanings, and even celebrate them felt like a breath of fresh air. Flourishing and its theme of joy in the face of assumed pain related to disability resonated deeply with me. The notion of joy as activism is a theme I was introduced to through the Flourishing project, and one I have taken into my being as an artist and activist working in the field of disability arts.
Flourishing challenged me to engage my artwork while taking into consideration my lived experience and broader equity. The possibilities of human flourishing represented by the work of my peers was freeing both creatively and personally. I was feeling the need to move away from elite gallery settings, and instead to foster the community-based practice that inspired my artmaking. I came to the conclusion that vending/distributing could be a preferred mode of showcasing my artwork, alongside a community that inspires my creativity. As such, I chose to hold my artist talk at Tangled informally, and was happy to be questioned on my experience as an Indigenous woman.
Living with mental illness and physical disability, I see community as integral to my happiness and my flourishing. One of the most powerful functions of art is to make change irresistible. This exhibition elevated my sense of personal justice by giving us control of our own stories and representation, and I felt on a personal level that it also served to facilitate collective healing which made the work all the more powerful.
My definition of flourishing hasn’t changed, but it has certainly evolved. Flourishing for me is recognizing pain and loss without relinquishing my power to adapt the situation for the betterment of my wellbeing. This means practicing body sovereignty, reclaiming history and voice, and giving and accepting care. Recently I’ve begun to see the idea of flourishing as self-acceptance.
I see my understanding of human flourishing exemplified in my artistic growth. Incorporating other senses into my art, as inspired by my peers in the Flourishing series, has helped me reclaim the ways I perceive marginalization in relation to my mental illness. It gives me the opportunity to be more honest in my artwork and more honest with myself. Embracing the ways trauma has informed my reality in my art is a means of honoring both my trauma and myself.
Participating with the other artists and curators in the Flourishing series fundamentally changed my relationship with my own work as a “mad” artist. Up until this series, I had repeatedly allowed myself to be tokenized. For a while, the common takeaway from my work was a narrative of overcoming, which is far from the reality I live each day and from the stories I yearn to tell.
The play I wrote for The Flourishing series was a sincere, complex attempt to represent the real and messy depictions of the politics of mad identity. But working with this thoughtful team of artists did as much for my artistic process as it did to advance my fledgling script; it allowed me to develop a more expansive view of my own mind in the process of creation. My generous co-participants allowed me to include my mental variability in the process and to work with it, rather than to see it purely as a liability to be overcome.
Seeing a workshop version of my play performed at the Tangled space during the Flourishing series shifted my own definition of flourishing. For me, flourishing is no longer a narrative of overcoming. I no longer feel the need to look like I have it together in order to compensate for rogue hallucinations and dissociative episodes. And I no longer live in fear of being othered. Instead, flourishing has begun to mean embracing my otherness and my suffering, being honest with myself, and incorporating my mad identity into my art process in very real ways.
I now long to write about the vulnerabilities, the ugliness, and the frailties of humans while illustrating that our strength is found precisely in our ability to make room for all of it. For me, flourishing is living with and alongside suffering, distortion, and fear. It is building courage through learning to accommodate vulnerability, to dance with it, rather than attempting to “re-normalize” suffering and leaving my frailties behind. Propagating the idea that we are only worthy because of how normal and productive we are perceived to be leaves many of us behind. For a while, I was able to “pass” as sane. I no longer choose to. Flourishing means giving myself room to be honest in my work and in my personal life. It means that I get to be myself.
These days I’ve been thinking about how imperative it is that human flourishing be a collective endeavor. Not only is my flourishing bound up in yours, but so much of a person’s fundamental well-being is impacted by larger structures and systems.
As part of the Flourishing project, I ran a community workshop about considerations of access and approaches to access in art spaces. I presented three iterations in three different communities between August and September 2018, making changes each time in response to research and conversation, valuable feedback from others, and my own learnings about my capacity to speak and respond in a public setting while experiencing significant pain. The format varied quite a bit. I learned early on to assume that many people have experience navigating access of different kinds and that I needed to leave lots of space for discussion. So many of us have so much to say on this topic, and so much to learn from each other.
The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery very generously hosted the session that took place in my home community. They now have a wall text in their main gallery that reads: “Our hope is that everyone is able to access and enjoy our exhibitions. If there is anything that we can do to improve your experience at the gallery, please let us know.” I wish that every gallery had such a welcoming message, and one that doesn’t frame disability as the only context for experiencing barriers. I find that open invitation really helpful, especially in spaces that describe themselves as “barrier-free.”
The idea that flourishing is solely the individual’s responsibility obscures the fact that forces outside of the individual are the source of so many barriers. And that our systems don’t acknowledge and can’t anticipate every barrier a person might face in any given moment. Access has to be relational and shared, motivated by care and not compliance. While I wholeheartedly defend the right to self-determination and acknowledge the role of personal responsibility, I reject the neoliberal and ableist idea that I alone am responsible for the conditions of my flourishing—even as I nonetheless attempt to create those conditions.