The Shape of her Art : A Conversation with Becky Dann by Nolan Stevens

A colour photograph, self portrait by Becky Dann. Becky is slightly turned away from the camera. Her head is turned and she is looking over her shoulder at the camera. There is a large scar across her bare back and her spine sticks out. She has deep red hair, and is wearing lip stick and eyeliner.

The first stint of my 2018 Unlimited Placement was, in short, a culture jolt. Not only because it was my first trip away from the continent of Africa, but also because the trip to the UK would have me engage openly and creatively with disability, an aspect of my being which had become foreign to me.  It was initially difficult but I was keen to investigate further and try to bridge the gap between my experience in South Africa where disability arts is non-existent and London where disability is part of the general arts narrative.

I spoke to Becky Dann, an intern at Shape Arts – one of the two organisations that make up the Unlimited commissioning programme. This conversation helped me understand more about the disability arts scene in the UK.

NOLAN STEVENS: I have just met you through Unlimited and read your bio-blog about how you discovered photography. My first question is how did you get to the point of realising the ‘I’m Fine’ project?

BECKY DANN: I did a three-year photography course at university. The ‘I’m Fine’ series was created for my second and third-year projects.

NOLAN: Could you tell me a bit more about the conceptualisation behind the project?

BECKY: I originally started the project around the idea of dating when you’re disabled. I noticed that with the use of apps and everything we have at our disposal now, you’re judged based on looks. So, if someone can’t physically see someone’s impairment, then they sometimes react badly when they find out. It is so easy with technology for guys to just disappear. They don’t have to give an explanation and I found that disability was an issue for a lot of guys. I started exploring that. It was happening at a time when I was starting to accept myself and like my body. The project merged into a form of self-exploration.

NOLAN: Is this a project that is going to continue in some way, or did it end with those images?

BECKY: I love the project, but I think it’s finished. I would like to expand on the subject matter  but it would be a completely different project with a completely different title and a different set of images.

NOLAN: I really enjoyed the images where you are made up to look like a sculptural piece. Could you talk me through how those came into being?

BECKY: I’ve always been really interested in live art, in the sense that live art creates an immediate reaction and has a story behind it. I liked the idea of merging live art with photography and recording it so there was also a live-stream for people who couldn’t physically be there. They could experience what was going on.

I wanted to do a project where I was a sculpture,  I can’t speak for everyone in Britain, but there is a perception that we are overly polite. A lot of the time people don’t want to hug me. They’d say they didn’t want to break me. They would ask me, “Can I hug you?” and I would say, “Yes, it’s fine”. So, the statue project developed as a social experiment to see how people reacted when they were asked to put a hand-print on my body. As I was a statue, I couldn’t talk. They couldn’t ask questions. They were just told from behind the camera, “Paint your hand and put a hand-print on Becky’s body wherever you feel comfortable.”

A studio shot with white background. Becky Dann is standing on black blocks. Her skin and hair, which is in a pony tail, are painted white. Her right arm is crossed over her breasts and her left arm stretches over the lower part of her torso. She is standing side-on to the camera and looking across the room. The floor is grey and the walls are white.

It was interesting to see how long it took for someone to put a hand-print on my back, because people are scared; they see a disfigurement of some-kind and they just get scared. I remember standing with a lot of unpainted areas left, and there was this guy walking around me with a painted hand who kept saying, “I don’t know where to put it. There’s no more room.” I obviously knew where there was room. There was room on my back. Sometimes people would ask, “Can I put a hand-print here?” but I couldn’t say anything. This forced them to just make a decision. Nobody touched my back until one person was brave enough to put a hand-print there and then everyone suddenly felt like it’s okay. It’s like they just needed that permission. It’s really odd!

NOLAN: I’m not sure I understand, is it a cultural thing where British people don’t touch backs? I don’t understand.

BECKY: It’s just because I don’t have a ‘normal’ back. My spine stands out, it’s different. I guess people would react the same way if I had half an arm or a leg, or something like that. It’s the impairment, people are just scared of it.

NOLAN: Got it. Strangely enough I didn’t think your disability related to your spine, I’d thought it was more related to your ankles or something.

BECKY: (Chuckles) No, my spine sticks out, it’s curved. I’ve got Scoliosis, so that causes my legs to not work so well.

NOLAN: Oh, okay. I understand. So, did your sculptural project inform the other photographic projects I saw on your website or was the sculptural project the end of that series?

BECKY: That was the end. There were three different sets of photos; there were the ones where I’m in my wheelchair. That was my first set, part of my dating series. So I used a wheelchair image on a dating profile, tried to gauge the responses from people and then documented that. The second set was a self-portraiture project that I did just to experiment. I just wanted to take photographs of myself and be like, “Hey, this is me and I’m okay with that.” And then the hand-print series was the final project.

Becky Dann is facing the wall. Her body is painted white and she has crossed her arms. The tips of her fingers are visible holding her waist. There are red, blue and yellow hand prints over her back.

NOLAN: When you were doing your photography course, were you encouraged to use yourself as a subject or was this something you came to by yourself?

BECKY: It was my own decision, I think I always knew I loved photography but never knew where I wanted to go with it or what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until my second-year at University that I started to think a bit differently about myself and about my art so I was like I need to do this now while I have access to the studio and the equipment. I used it as an opportunity.

NOLAN: So, where to from here in terms of your artistic practice because right now you’re working at Shape Arts?

BECKY: Yeah, obviously because I graduated from university a couple of years ago, I no longer have access to studios and everything like that. I haven’t really done anything artistic since, which is a shame, but it is something I obviously want to get back into. I am starting to gather ideas in my spare time, putting together ideas in my sketchbook. I am also doing some freelance photography work. All in the hope that once I have a solid plan, I can start applying to different funding bodies to help making those ideas a reality.

NOLAN: Has your time at Shape influenced you in any artistic way?

BECKY: If anything, it’s made me want to get back into art even more because being behind the scenes and watching all these artists create their work – I love it, but it’s also like I want to do that. It’s encouraging me more and more to get some ideas together and get my practice going again.

NOLAN: Any chance of you branching off into moving imagery or motion graphics or film or video?

BECKY: I played a bit with film when I did the ‘I’m Fine project’. I did live-streaming, so when it came to my final graduation show, I had the live stream playing on a loop so that people could watch it and see it as it was happening. I don’t know really, photography is kind of my background so I think photography will always be my main thing.

This conversation with Becky Dann was a personal investigation into the mindscape of an art practitioner whose lens focuses on some of the complexities surrounding the UK disability arts scene. I will be delving deeper with each article I write into the realm of disability arts and the creative forces who shape it.  

Published 9 August 2018

REBECCA DANN is a 23-year-old Photography graduate from the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. Best known for her photography project ‘I’m Fine’. After graduating with First Class Honours, Rebecca was elected as her University’s Student Union Campus President. She spent a year representing students across the University in a bid to make change. Once her time at UCASU was over, Rebecca was offered the job of Unlimited Trainee based at Shape Arts, London, where she is currently learning about disability arts and has been a key contact for a number of artists. 

Outside of photography, Rebecca appeared in Series 8 of the UK reality-TV documentary, The Undateables on Channel 4.

A colour photograph of Nolan Stevens standing near a wall covered in street art. He is wearing a light-blue peak cap and pointing to the wall.NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. He is the fourth and youngest member of an artistic family. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. His eldest brother is a sound engineer and his middle brother is in the film industry.

Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects. He started curating by partnering with American, Anne Gordon, and organising exhibitions at the Bataki Kollective.  He is inspired by conversations on representation with artists from various art studio spaces within the Johannesburg inner city area. Under the banner of “A Funky Mad Hatter Joint” he curated The Pink Light District; an all-female exhibition which grappled with ideas of how women feel they have been prostituted by traditional African culture, the media and society as a whole. The second show was Deck Society; a collaboration with an international education and skateboarding organisation called SKATEISTAN. This exhibition asked artists to think about issues facing South African youth and to create Afrocentric Pop Art works on skateboard decks provided by SKATEISTAN. Sounds and the City was his last exhibition which fused music and visual art.  

He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement and is finding that experience is shifting his perspective in a wide variety of ways not only in terms of how he views disability but how he sees himself as a creative person with disability contributing to understanding disability arts as a community.

Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment. He did not want to be pitied and tried to fit into the ‘norm.’ He has always had to make do and try to work within the structures that are already in place. He is only now beginning to seek out others in the disability arts community.

Further Information :

You can find Becky’s artwork on her website.