Bubulina – Colombia
Natalia Moreno Rodríguez describes “artivism” and shares the socioeconomic and ableist barriers that disabled artists encounter in Colombia.
Bubulina is my nom de guerre, a name I chose for myself because I was fascinated by the story of the original Bouboulina, a Greek woman who fought against the Ottoman Empire. She formed an army and stopped Greece from being colonised. I identify with her as a strong, determined woman. I was born with a physical disability and work as a specialist in communications, a performance artist and an activist supporting the rights of disabled people. I dedicate my life to raising awareness and increasing understanding about various types of oppression that I encounter such as patriarchy, ableism, and heteronormativity. I am currently living with my mother in a working-class neighbourhood of Bogotá, supported by a wide network of friends and allies.
Art-ivism is a form of expression and of Putting Up Resistance
I became an activist in 2007 after joining a human rights committee in the place where I lived. After finishing high school, I didn’t have the opportunity to study at a university or find a job because of my disability and social class. Most of Colombia’s higher education institutions are privately run. Enrolment at a public university involves competing by sitting state exams and getting high marks — and my academic results were not up to scratch. Nor could I apply for computing courses nor learn a trade because the community centre did not have “special needs teachers”. This was on account of my disability. These painful and frustrating situations made it dawn on me that something was wrong. So I began to take matters into my own hands, to question what I saw around me and to organize myself along with others experiencing the same segregation. Something else that helped me understand my marginalized status was my political activism for many years in Colombia’s Communist Party. The experience was a real education.
In 2010, I began working in the performance arts after making a project that combined research, activism, and documentary filmmaking with four friends on the subject of disability, sexuality and gender. We wanted a performance to conclude the documentary, which led to the monologue called Tentáculos (Tentacles). My inspiration was the Italian director Pippo Delbono, who came to Colombia to present his play War and worked with several disabled actors.
I wrote and dramatized Tentáculos as a monologue. I sought to shed light on the stereotyped narrative built up around disabled people who are treated as children, limiting their feminine and masculine development. The connection created between the story and the spectator makes possible the sharing of experiences and breaks away from a politically correct discourse. The monologue has toured various cities in Colombia and in 2018 was staged in Mexico and Nepal.
In 2012 I trained as a teacher of Contemporary Inclusive Dance and subsequently began to give dance workshops. I am the co-creator of the Compañía de Danza Luna Patch, a dance company that performed my first play called Campo de Espejos (Field of Mirrors) at Universidad del Cauca in Colombia.
There is no future unless we become unconventional
My work in the arts world stems from my questioning of platforms that are completely normative or segregationist. Plays rarely use disabled actors. Moreover, disability arts is positioned as therapy or carried out in a segregationist way which steers me toward a critical perspective on art. Disabled artists produce powerful works, strongly critical of society. However, many of these artists cannot earn a stable income to make a living from their work. People also need to have access to art education.
I don’t foresee the future being different from the present unless we find unconventional ways of making progress. We need the mainstream community to support our work rather than seeing it as remote from their reality.
Each time I took off my corset to wash, I had the sensation that I lost a part of myself, I felt weak, powerless… my body had become a corset and vice-versa. I had worn foot splints since I was six months old. My childhood was very Forrest Gump-like. Now the technology has improved and they no longer make a noise.
I’m afraid of walking, afraid of falling, afraid of suffering, afraid of fighting, afraid of hallucinogens (having them near me or trying them), afraid of loving, afraid of feeling, afraid of desiring, afraid of the dark, afraid of sex, afraid of living and dying… Facing up to these fears has been my greatest feat. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to begin by dealing with my own mental defects. There are some things I’ve asked myself and I’d like to ask you too. Can disabled people conceive or adopt children? Can I be a mother? I’ve considered the possibility of adopting a child. Why not? Would I be a bad mother? What do you need to be a “good” mother? Is it really about your body? What is the question? Why the hell are my sexual and reproductive rights even questioned? What sexual and reproductive rights? It’s in my nature, just like it’s in yours…
Natalia Moreno Rodríguez -Bubulina- is a Colombian social communicator and inclusive contemporary dance instructor. She identifies as a sexual dissident and a woman with diversidad funcional física. She started her human rights activism in 2007, and is part of the founding team of the Colectiva Polimorfas, a support group for women in Diversidad funcional/ Disability in Colombia.
Pandemic Postcards – Canada & Mexico
Curated by Alex Bulmer, the Pandemic Postcards tell the stories of artists within the Deaf and disabled community living through the self-isolation and quarantine period of COVID-19.
Maria del Carmen Camarena is a vocalist who has performed in numerous musical groups. She appeared in the El Rey Nació opera from composer José Luis González Moya in Guadalajara city’s Teatro Diana in 2012 and performed at the fourth Nairobi International Culture Festival in 2016, along with other high-profile performances.
Hanan Hazime is a multidisciplinary artist, creative writer, community arts educator and writing instructor living in Tkaranto/Toronto. She identifies as a Lebanese-Canadian Muslimah Feminist and Mad Pride Activist. When not writing or creating art, Hanan enjoys reading fantasy novels, over-analyzing things, photo-blogging, dancing with faeries in the woods and drinking copious amounts of tea.
Edon Descollines is a visual artist, poet, dancer and actor known for the expressive quality of his performances and for his creativity and commitment. Joe, Jack et John is a theatre company of actors with intellectual disabilities or from diverse cultural backgrounds that produces original, bilingual, multidisciplinary shows combining video, dance and the spoken word.
HARBOURFRONT CENTRE, on Toronto’s waterfront, is an innovative non-profit cultural organization which creates events and activities of excellence that enliven, educate and entertain a diverse public. Our Mission is to nurture the growth of new cultural expression, stimulate Canadian and international interchange and provide a dynamic, accessible environment for the public to experience the marvels of the creative imagination. Our vision is to be a vibrant home for the culture of our time, inspiring people through the magic of the creative spirit. Harbourfront Centre is the producer and presenter of CoMotion Festival 2022, a new multi-disciplinary International Festival of Deaf and Disability Arts, curated by Alex Bulmer.
With 30 professional years across theatre, television, film, radio and education, Alex Bulmer is dedicated to intersectional collaborative art practice, fueled by a curiosity of the improbable and deeply informed by her experience of becoming blind.
She is activated by obstacles, well exposed to the absurd, and embraces generosity, listening, time and uncertainty within her artistic and personal life.
Named one of the most influential disabled artists by UK’s Power Magazine, Bulmer is an award-winning writer, director, actor and dramaturge. She is Artistic Director of Common Boots Theatre, co-founder of Cripping the Stage with British Council Canada, in Toronto, and the Lead Curator of CoMotion 2022, an international Deaf and Disability Arts festival produced by Harbourfront Centre.
Centre Gabriela Mistral – Chile
As one of the largest cultural centres in Chile, GAM is influencing public policy by making artistic initiatives its vehicle.
Located in Santiago, Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) opened in 2010 as a cultural centre with numerous spaces for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, crafts, and visual arts quickly establishing itself as one of Chile’s major arts venues.
Due to its importance on the cultural landscape of the capital, GAM has always led in terms of accessibility and inclusive programming. In 2013, it began organising a variety of training courses and seminars for artists and cultural agents to develop new ways of working with a broader spectrum of creators and audiences in mind. One of those initiatives, the Incluye Seminar, is an annual week-long programme of workshops, masterclasses, relaxed performances, films, and lectures on inclusive arts.
The Incluye Seminar began as a response to making the cultural centre more inclusive to audiences that were visiting the space, but had a limited interaction with it due to a disability. It began by creating guided tours of the space for blind and visually-impaired visitors, led by blind and vision-impaired guides, called HAPTO.
GAM Executive Director Felipe Mella underlines the importance of this initiative, “With Incluye, we seek to contribute towards inclusion of all people with disabilities and highlight artistic initiatives that serve as vehicles for social transformation.”
Thanks to a long- standing collaboration with the British Council, Pamela López, Head of Programming and Audiences at GAM, took part in various editions of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Made in Scotland Programme and Unlimited Festival where she saw inclusive arts at its best.
In 2018 she brought UK actor and comedian Jess Thom to Chile as part of Incluye’s programme. Her book, “Welcome to Biscuit Land,” her play “Backstage in Biscuit Land,” and her documentary “Me, My Mouth and I” explore her lived experience with Tourette Syndrome. By including all of this work in Incluye’s programme, López emphasizes that “it was a rare opportunity to see inclusive arts as a whole.”
GAM’s commitment to inclusive arts has had many highpoints over the years. The documentary “Lección de música” (The Music Lesson) shared the story of a young autistic woman who learned to conduct a music ensemble using sign language. After the film premiered at GAM, there was a live concert by the ensemble and its conductor. The play “Punto ciego” (Blind Spot) about a witch hunt in the island of Chiloe (south of Chile) in the 1880s, pioneered audio description throughout the performance without using earphones, and the HAPTO project has blind guides lead groups of blindfolded visitors through the permanent collection of the cultural centre, providing a different experience of the heritage art pieces in the collection and of the building itself.
In 2018, GAM introduced relaxed performances to its yearly programme base. By adapting artistic work to better suit the needs of adults and children with learning difficulties, autism, or sensory communication disorders GAM created a more friendly environment at the theatre for these patrons.
López stipulates that these programmes do not yet reflect the full breadth of commitment GAM has for inclusive arts. “Our vision is still 180 degrees in scope. For it to be 360 degrees, we need to make every production and commission in an accessible format. We must incorporate artists with disabilities in every single process, aspect and phase, and generate radical actions to influence public policy in this area.”
Chela de Ferrari – Peru
The collaborative work between the actors and the production team of Hamlet at Teatro La Plaza represented an achievement not only on stage, but above all on a personal level.
Shakespeare’s plays have always interested me. Every time I thought of my next project, the idea of doing a new version of Hamlet came up. However, I always discarded this possibility for the same reason: I could not find the actor for the main protagonist. Until I met Jaime Cruz.
Jaime has worked for more than three years as an usher in La Plaza’s theatre hall, guiding people to their seats and selling programmes. However, his actual dream was to appear on stage as an actor, as he once shared at a staff meeting. Because of his comment, I invited him to have a coffee. His wish was to act on stage, and mine was to do Hamlet. This project, which had remained dormant for several years, was awakened by the new possibilities that an actor like Jaime could bring to the meaning of Hamlet’s words.
A provocation? Undoubtedly. But one that challenged us with the big question, “to be, or not to be”. For people who are disregarded and cannot find a space where they are taken into consideration, what does it mean “to be”? The proposal aimed to question the myths built around Down syndrome and to recontextualise the existential question asked by Hamlet.
Traditionally, the weight of the main character falls on the iconic figure of a “great actor”. This version is composed of eight performers: seven actors with Down syndrome and an actress with an intellectual disability. The message of an individual is here voiced by a group.
During the creation process several questions arose. How do people with cognitive difficulties approach the complexity of Hamlet, his existential questions, and retain his essential aspects? To what extent do the actors in this version have the need to represent themselves through Hamlet? Does this need to be the case for the project to make sense? Can they adapt the work and generate their own narratives through Hamlet? Today, we can answer those questions and say that they have developed their own narrative based on Shakespeare’s text. On the one hand, they take the meaning of the words in the play as a cohesion tool. On the other hand, we have experienced events like the one brought forth by Ximena, one of the actresses. One morning she burst into the middle of an exercise to reveal an existential anxiety: “I no longer know who I am. In the morning I wake up and wonder who I am. Inside, I live two lives. A life that wants to be a neurotypical person and a life that prefers Down syndrome”. Both Ximena and her colleagues have appropriated Hamlet’s words to give them a new meaning.
There are also questions that we leave open. Can our actors, with their own agency, aesthetics and conceptual preferences, co-exist with the theatre management team’s structure? How do we showcase the value of those aesthetics that, according to some mainstream conventions, detract from the performance? I am referring to features such as difficulty in vocalizing, diction problems, pronounced stuttering, tense times, blank moments, and overacting. Can we find other ways of representation?
Theatre rehearsals typically take two to three months. Hamlet took us a whole year of work, because both my processes and those of the actors are slower than others. This was also due to the nature of the project. The play being written as we went along, it was essential for us all to live a time of exploration, research, and collection of materials. The play is a fabric woven with Shakespeare’s text and the actors’ lives. From Hamlet we borrowed the scenes, phrases, monologues and characters that connect with the interests, claims, experiences, realities and reflections of the actors. We use Hamlet. And we do it in total freedom.
A year ago, when we asked the actors “Why do you do theatre?”, their answers puzzled us: “Because I want to be famous”. A couple of days ago we asked them the question again. Their responses were, “To represent people like us” and “To be able to say what I think”.
The life of each member of the production and direction team has been enriched as much, or more, than the actors’. The exchange has confronted us with our own condition and with the question of who we are.
Alejandrina D’Elia – Argentina, Chile & Peru
Alejandrina D’Elia explores past and present accessibility initiatives by various theatres, projects and cultural centres located in Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) describes the rights of disabled people to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. Signatories such as Argentina, Chile and Peru have assembled government agencies and ministries to protect these rights. However, disabled people continue to face the most discrimination within society, a problem exacerbated when combined with other factors such as gender, race, ethnic background, geographical location and income level. Private-sector and civil-society actors are therefore advocating for disability issues to be placed on the public agenda, and for action to be taken.
The following initiatives in these three South American countries are leading the way both domestically and in the wider region, thanks to the high quality of their productions created with the participation of disabled people, and supported by the British Council as a partner.
Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM), located in a historic building in central Santiago, is a cultural centre with 10 rooms for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, folk art and conferences. Since 2013, GAM has provided a venue for training courses and participative activities, residencies and the design of accessible content for people with different disabilities. In 2018, the centre began offering “relaxed performances” to give people with cognitive disabilities access to the performing arts through technically and spatially adapted plays. The general public as well as those with physical, learning, communication disabilities, as well as those on the autism spectrum, can participate and take training courses.
Fundación Corpgroup Centro Cultural, situated in central Santiago, is equipped with exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a sculpture garden, and offers a cultural programme (music, theatre, dance, visual arts and film) for adults and children. It hosts local and international events on its premises and around the country. In 2019 it staged a participative production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney: To See and Not See in a multisensory performance accessible for people with visual disabilities. The Compañía de Teatro de Ciegos LUNA [Blind Theatre Company LUNA] trained the cast, gave advice on the staging, produced all of the accessible devices, and in addition to interpreting the voice-overs in the montage. The Orquesta Nacional de Ciegos de Chile [National Orchestra of the Blind of Chile] performed the original score, and an integrated disabled and non-disabled crew worked on various aspects including the play’s production and audio-description design, Braille texts and QR codes. This experience paved the way for other initiatives for groups with different disabilities.
Teatro La Plaza, located in Lima, was set up in 2003 to stage public performances of challenging plays. In 2019 it produced the first free version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed by a cast with Down Syndrome. Theatre director Chela Ferrari wrote and directed the play as a collaborative process that took several months and helped break down prejudices; this was Ferrari’s first experience of working with disabled people. The project led to explorations of other techniques such as the Rationale Method.
Mundana is a dance company established in 2017 by dancer and acrobat Inés Coronado who, after developing a disability in one of her legs, embarked on an artistic project that questions the limits of the body while aiming to develop an inclusive society.
Kinesfera is a contemporary dance company whose dancers have a physical disability.
Both companies have participated in local and international festivals; they are also activists and form part of the Latin American dance and inclusion network.
Teatro Nacional Cervantes is attached to Argentina’s Ministry of Culture (Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación), and was inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 1921. It is the first public theatre to offer accessible performances as part of its programme. In 2018, the theatre’s audience development department designed a new programme for disabled people, in conjunction with the accessibility team of the Argentinean government’s Office for Cultural Innovation (Dirección Nacional de Innovación Cultural). The group proposed a physical, sensory and intellectual approach based on three pillars: strategic planning, strengthened technical and human resources, and communication. They designed accessible resources for various groups of disabled people using the social model of disability; specialists from the United Kingdom such as Kirsty Hoyle from Include Arts provided support. In 2018, the play The Extraordinary Life by Argentinean director Mariano Tenconi Blanco, a pilot production, incorporated accessible resources such as audio description, a hearing loop, and sign-language interpretation. Leading civil society organizations working in accessibility helped perform checks every step of the way. In 2019, all of the additional plays included in the programming incorporated accessible performances on a permanent basis. Other additions included theatre programmes using QR codes with and without embossed dots, drinking bowls for guide dogs, tactile visits, pictograms on the webpage, and invitations in Argentinean Sign Language (LSA) with subtitles and audio. The whole process was documented, including interviews with members of the audience exiting the theatre: 61% of those with a hearing disability and 35% of those with a visual impairment answered in the affirmative when asked whether this was the first time they had seen a play at a theatre. These figures still apply in most cultural spaces, laying down a challenge for public policies and cultural promoters when designing cultural projects.
Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA) is a well-established cultural event in the region for both local and international visitors. The event brings together a network of independent and official theatres in the city of Buenos Aires. In the summer of 2020, the programme had four themes: gender and diversity, environment, integration, and technology. It marked the first time that integration and cultural accessibility were a core part of the Festival. The British Council designed the strategy, together with the participation of Scottish dancer and choreographer, Claire Cunningham.
An assessment was made of theatres’ accessibility and a circuit was designed with a selection of venues, including accessible resources such as hearing loops in the theatres, sign language interpretation, tactile visits, and audio description. Communication was a vital aspect of the work on printed and online materials. The festival team from the producers to the director received training in cultural accessibility. The British Council inaugurated a videotheque with interviews, including one with Claire Cunningham, in order to generate reference materials. This was the first time that such a festival catered to disabled audiences, setting a benchmark for future editions of the event, and creating a momentum for future programmes on the independent circuit.
Some proposals have been implemented and now form an inherent part of the institutions’ programming. Others continue to be one-off initiatives that are important but hard to keep going. It is essential to have accessible resources for productions and to prepare audiences that have been historically excluded from cultural events. Our countries need to address the issues of disability and art in two ways: from the perspective of audiences, offering accessible resources for the disabled to enjoy cultural programmes and from the standpoint of creators, offering training, grants and production subsidies. Public policies must be permanent and sustainable.
• Raising awareness about the issue in the public and private sector, and among civil society.
• Reminding those in charge of public policies of their duty to protect disability rights and mobilise resources in order to create accessible cultural content.
• Decentralising activities by promoting knowledge transfer to other theatres/bodies around the country and the region.
• Working with disabled people and with interdisciplinary teams on project design, production and implementation.
• Creating a record of information and best practices; sharing local and regional experiences.
• Identifying and locating disabled artists across the country.
• Promoting and continuing training courses for local and foreign specialists.