Disabled artist “Mow”, 32, has literally taken the shirt off her back for her latest work: a laundry-cum-mailbag made from her own clothes, with shopping receipts appliqued on the cloth.
Not Lost is Mow’s satirical response to the Department for Work and Pensions’ “shoddy” information-gathering process, inspired by her own experience of sending her financial details – a requirement of receiving her out-of-work sickness benefits for bipolar disorder – only for it to be “lost” in the system.
“Every year they ask, ‘Has your income gone up or down?’ Then they lose your information. No apologies, nothing. Just ‘we’re going to cut your benefits if you don’t act’,” says Mow, who doesn’t use her real name because of her mental health problems. “It makes you feel so powerless.”
A social worker before she was diagnosed, Mow says she chose a laundry bag to symbolise how disabled people – pushed through increasingly personal and difficult benefits assessments – have to “air their dirty laundry in public” and deal with the shame that often creates. “You go from a working member of society doing ‘the right thing’ to being this passive ‘benefit claimant’ tarred with the brush of being a sponger,” she says.
Mow, from Huddersfield, is one of 19 disabled artists taking part in an exhibition in Leeds from Thursday called Shoddy. Each contributor will use nothing but recycled textile materials in a bid to “challenge the idea that disabled people are inferior, broken-down or second-rate”.
The organisers say that, in a climate of seismic cuts to social security, “shoddy” could be used to describe government treatment of the disabled. “We’re seeing sustained attacks on disabled people’s rights to live with dignity and without fear of harassment – all from a government hell bent on removing any sense of security or stability,” says Gill Crawshaw, the founder of Shoddy.
Crawshaw has a history of using art to highlight disabled people’s inequality. In 2014 she set up a local exhibition in protest at the council’s decision to show Grayson Perry’s tapestries in an inaccessible venue, but says the timing of the current exhibition is “particularly crucial”.
After widespread opposition last month, including the resignation of welfare and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the government dropped its controversial plans to cut personal independence payments (PIPs). Despite that climbdown, during this parliament there will be further cuts to social security, including the removal of £30 a week from some people too ill or disabled to work.
What’s now an increasing struggle to access state support is portrayed in Vickie Orton’s work, The Maze of Life. Orton, 47, chose the theme of a maze to reflect the experience of working your way through the benefit system. “So often you’re faced with dead ends or turnings that look promising but lead nowhere,” says Orton, who has multiple sclerosis and receives PIP and employment support allowance. “Sometimes it can be impossible to fight your way through it.”
Half the maze, made in monochrome to illustrate the rigidity of the claims process, tellingly includes hopeful-looking corridors that meet in a dead end or the barrier of a staircase. The other – brightly coloured with threaded sparkles – portrays the contributions that disabled people make to society.
This blend of hope and darkness is scattered through Lesley Illingworth’s work, which the 58-year-old calls a “story-telling coat”. At first sight the coat is embroidered with positive qualities of disabled people (“patient, intuitive, brave”), but its lining tells a bleak reality: a list of MPs, each partnered with the name of a disabled person from Calum’s List – the list of deceased benefit claimants compiled by disability campaigners, where welfare reform is alleged to have had some culpability in their deaths.
Illingworth, 58, who has fibromyalgia, has been an artist for more than 20 years, but this is the first time she has felt the need to use her work to protest: “The political system of recent years against disabled people, and the increase in vilification by the media, has made me more political. I’ve seen how it’s affected the lives of disabled people, the unfairness of it all.”
Crawshaw hopes now is “the turning point”, adding: “As the exhibition shows the power and strength of disabled people, more and more people – including Tory MPs – are directing their anger towards the government and calling for an end to these vicious spending cuts. The government’s treatment of disabled people is beyond shoddy – it’s downright cruel.”
Shoddy will run from 7-16 April at the Live Art Bistro in Leeds
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