Tanya Raabe-Webber: “Disability art is a powerful instrument”

Tanya Raabe-Webber: “Disability art is a powerful instrument”

In her project Portraits Untold artist Tanya Raabe-Webber creates portraits of high profile disabled and diverse people during live sittings. These sessions take place in prominent public art galleries and venues. In this interview she tells about her art and being a disabled artist. 

Why have you chosen to focus on a disabled self, identity and the nude in your works?

As a disabled person these are the themes that are in the centre of who I am, in a disabling world. So my work is very much centered around how I fit in and how the world fits around me. 

In Pertti’s Choice there will be an exhibition of your portraits and you will be running a  portrait-drawing workshop with Kalevi Helvetti. Why have you chosen to work with portraits? 

Portraits are very much about the connection between a human being and human being. We like to share experiences and as somebody who’s physically disabled, which is a very visible thing, I embrace interactions constantly. I have turned that into an art form for myself. I look forward to collaborating with Kalevi with our unique styles and creative processes.

Why is important to bring forth people with disabilities in your work?

There is a lot of work out there, in art collections, art galleries and so on that looks at the everyday and the ordinary, but doesn’t really look at where the disabled people’s place is in that history. So I’m very interested in the art of making sure that disabled people are part of that historic record. 

There’s empowerment in that, when you share each other’s work, visual language, stories and ideas. Then the work opens up to a wider world, who can then see that there is this unique perspective on the world around us, which has a visual aesthetic of its own – a celebration of difference and diversity.

Why is it important to talk about disability and art and everyone’s right to consume and produce art?

The disability art movement comes from a political point of view, it comes from an art movement of its own right, which was born out of disabled people being incarcerated and not given choices. I think it’s really important that we talk about disability and celebrate its diversity and difference, though the art doesn’t need to be about disability in a very obvious way. It often tells our stories and experiences within its themes. For me as a person, as a disabled artist, disability art is a powerful instrument of empowerment, inclusion and equality, where art unites us together as humans. I believe everyone has the right to produce and consume art. Access, affordability, quality and equality are fundamental in enabling this.

Art is a way of communicating as well. A lot of disabled artists and people are using creative process to communicate the way that they feel, the way that they live in the world and the way that they communicate with others. This is empowerment!

What can be done to support disabled artists in the UK better?

It’s hard to be a sustainably paid artist in this country, whether you are disabled or not. There are many unseen barriers to consider as a disabled artist. It would be good if we had a social care system that allows disabled and learning disabled artists to sell a painting or run a workshop, do a certain amount over a certain period and be paid properly for this. Nowadays selling a painting if you’re on benefits could cause you to lose all your social care benefit funding. This is a huge barrier to professional practice. We need a system that doesn’t do that. We need a big campaign to hit the government that these systems are archaic and they need to change. As artists we need to instigate this change with the support of others.

How have others reacted to your work?

Generally my work is renowned for its craftsmanship and sense of respect for the people I paint. My work has pioneered in both subject matter and technique, fusing traditional and digital images. In the past I have been regularly asked to remove work from the wall because of the nudity. Paintings or pictures of disabled people, who are visibly disabled, have caused controversy. This drives me to continue to break down these barriers to exhibiting my work. When I do sessions for Portraits Untold I have had many conversations with the general public about this issue and we are kind of in shock of the stories and decisions to remove the work from the walls. 

Portraits Untold was definitely an eyeopener, for both the galleries, who hosted the events, the sitter, who would often lead collaboration in some way, often disability led, and for the audience. There are always loads of conversations and positive dialogues around seeing disabled people and artists making work in a public space. Where do we see the representations of disabled people in our museum and art gallery collections and what can we do to widen the diversity of what we see?

Pertti’s Choice Popup, 8-10 August. Protein Studios, 31 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EY.
Opening hours: Thursday 10:30–18, Friday 10:30–16 and Saturday 10:30–18.

Text: Jenni Ahtiainen Photo: Tanya Raabe-Webber


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