Sumptuous Wheelchairs?

Posted July 19th, 2016 by Anthony

Fanciful wheelchair sculpture

Jazzy Peacock by A. Laura Brody

When I first learned about the art exhibit Opulent Mobility I was intrigued. An LA artist, A. Laura Brody, used wheelchairs and a walker as a base for fanciful, beautiful, impractical devices. The equipment was used as a beginning point, an armature to create inspired sculptures. These devices weren’t meant to make getting around easier. They were sophisticated, imaginative creations that were funky, alluring, and high-style. The pieces were fanciful, playful, and fantastical. It raised the question, “Why can’t we embrace mobility devices with all of their baggage and make something exuberant and pretty?” Everyday wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers can become something that is wonderful that sparks our imagination.

Opulent Mobility jolted my mindset—I was forced to consider a new aesthetic. The first Opulent Mobility exhibit in 2013 was so well thought out, produced, and downright imaginative I was jolted into thinking about how disability personas could be fanciful without falling into stereotypes. Maybe it is Burning Man, or cosplay, or just being post-fashion that creates a space for disabled people to dress their equipment and themselves in wildly conceived finery. “Hmm, perhaps it is cool,” I eventually thought. I got excited enough to contact Laura and let her know how impressed I was and to offer my help with a second Opulent Mobility show in September 2015. She took me up on my offer.

I appreciate the newest, and the oldest, designs of wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility devices. I play with wheelchairs, I have wheelchair action figures, I own three power chairs, two modern manuals, and one wood and cane chair. I puzzle over how I can keep my everyday power chair from looking grungy from my cooking and other sloppy habits. Nowhere in that pantheon is sumptuousness considered. It’s all usability, efficiency, and a certain amount of low-key cool.

The only time that the imaginative or fanciful were a part of my wheelchair and crutch using life were the costumes my father made me for Halloween. Sometimes I walked with crutches. They lent themselves to very cool bat wings. The next year with the basics of the costume and the addition of eight velvet covered legs I became a (transvestite) black widow spider. My wheelchair became a pirate ship one year and a haunted house another. But since adolescence my disability persona has been about hipness, coolness, and day-to-day authenticity.

Thus, I got to see another example of the power that art has to change how we conceive of the world and our stereotypes about the disability experience and identity. Laura asked me to be a juror for the second show. I accepted. The 2015 appeal for submissions, aided by a colorful postcard, got a broad distribution including at the Society for Disability Studies Annual Meeting.

The response was modest, but the proposed pieces were strong. I think the concept of Opulent Mobility is still a bit too new for artists. We did not have too much trouble selecting the final pieces—I was surprised at how many excellent pieces were entered and how few super-sweet, stereotypical pieces we had to endure.

The final installation was stunning. In one way it looked like any other mixed media gallery show. There were the white walls, the enigmatic sculptures, and prints on the walls. That customary perspective made it easier to systematically look at the pieces and absorb them. I gradually recognized how radical the portrayals of disability were. Fortunately, if anyone did not understand how different and profound the show was, at the opening was a young man who was using his wheelchair submarine. There was no way to recognize him as anything other than a new expression of disability identity.

I like disability imagery when it refigures and recombines—when it goes beyond the everyday. I particularly appreciate images that break the standard disability stereotypes. Opulent Mobility did just that for me. Just the flyer from Laura created for Opulent Mobility went beyond anything I had seen before. They aren’t slick, modern designs. They are from another time and place.

One of the things I like about art is when it makes me see and think differently. I cannot look at a field of hay or the night sky and not see them as richer and more fascinating because of Van Gogh. Opulent Mobility starts there and then embraces disability tools. It explodes what I consider possible and reasonable for assistive devices. Laura’s rich and complex pieces draw upon older aesthetics to remake so-called medical equipment appealing and engaging. Opulent Mobility, even in just its name, makes me question the lack of velvet and fur for my wheelchair. But, it is not just the tangible sumptuousness of Laura’s pieces that helps me to recompose how I think about my wheelchair. She gets me to question why I have such a limited conception of wheelchairs. The beauty of many of the pieces fooled me at first, but then gave me an appreciation for combining another, and in some ways more familiar, kind of beauty with disability. We can love our scars while we love those sumptuous wheelchairs.

To see the catalog for the September 2015 exhibit at California State University, Northridge go to Opulent Mobility. Click on the Opulent Mobility slideshow. And remember submissions for the 2016 exhibit are due July 30, 2016.

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