Exhibition sparks conversation about autism
17 September 2018
By Keith Reeves
An invitation to speak at an Arts For All Otago Network meeting about making the arts accessible to people with autism sparked an exhibition at the Otago Museum of artwork by 28 autistic artists.
Driving the project was Tanea Paterson, who shared the Arts For All Otago Network stage with Sheryl Davies of Altogether Autism.
“I knew we had the talent but at first, I thought it would be a small friends-and-whānau thing in a local hall,” Tanea says. “I was blown away at the meeting when Rachel Cooper from Otago Museum said we could use the H D Skinner Annex for something on a much bigger scale than I had imagined.”
An autistic woman and a qualified addiction consultant, Tanea says she is used to speaking and writing about autism and its challenges. “But I came to see that often I was only reaching other autistic people and their families, who already had a good understanding of autism. I needed to engage with the wider society and realised that using art as a platform to give our group a voice had the potential to be superbly positive. I was also very aware of the size of the talent pool in our community.”
And so Tanea and three others (Tom, Western and Denise) formed the group iNDx – Autistic Arts and Culture Aotearoa. Explaining the term “iNDx”, Tanea says the “i” stands for identity and “ND” for neurodivergent or neurologically “not typical”, while “Dx” is a play on the medical abbreviation for diagnosis.
“As opposed to the deficit/disorder view, we support the neurodiversity view as a more humane and inclusive way of looking at autism,” Tanea says.
The group then worked with Rachel and others from Otago Museum, and the exhibition began to take shape. “We threw ideas around and there was so much energy and excitement. When we realised we were going to be able to do it, there were tears: mostly mine,” Tanea says.
This was also when the group met its biggest challenge. “We didn’t know what to expect because we had never done anything like this before. Predictable things are much more pleasing to the autistic mind and so the difficulty was within ourselves. We had to trust the uncertain process and accept offers of help. We had to use our passion and excitement for the project to buffer the terror and anxiety of ‘what ifs’.”
Tanea praises the support the group received from Otago Museum. “Rachel and the team were always around to answer our questions and support us but totally respected our autistic-led kaupapa. That’s what made the exhibition possible.”
Every artist who submitted work had at least one work in the exhibition, which ran from 11 to 23 August. Along with local artists, there were artists from Auckland through to the Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Canterbury and Southland. One artists was from Canberra, Australia. You can download the exhibition catalogue
Tanea says the involvement of the museum professionals meant work was displayed with a skill that revealed its quality and drew in the audience.
Rachel Cooper, the Public Engagement Manager at Otago Museum, says it was a privilege working with the iNDx team.
Adapting its thinking and planning processes
“Providing a platform for members of our community to express themselves and share information is really important to us,” she says. “Developing the iNDx exhibition and its supporting programmes required us to adapt our thinking and planning processes so that the group felt comfortable working with us. The result was a collaborative and thought-provoking exhibition and we are so grateful that the artists trusted us to help tell their stories.”
It was the audience’s engagement with the works that gave Tanea the most satisfaction. “With autism, there tends to be a focus on the negative. The show opened up a view of autism that was not defined by medicine or the media. It offered different viewpoints, feelings and dynamics from inside the autism community, showing its wonderful diversity and complexity.
“That was why we left each artist’s ‘bio’ just as they sent it in. We saw no need to edit them, to force them into a new shape. Being forced to ‘fit in’ is a very problematic issue for autistic members of society.”
Open dialogue about autism
Workshops held over the weekends provided open dialogue about autism. For some visitors, it was their first encounter with autism and autistic people. It gave them the chance to ask questions and appreciate the uniqueness of autistic perspectives. Some spoke of feeling more confident to talk about autism in a positive way as a result of having seen the work on show.
Tanea says Otago Museum also gained a better understanding of autism and organised “quiet hours” in the main museum areas to increase access for visitors with acute sensory sensitivity to noise and lights.
“It wasn’t an exhibition to look at autistic people,” Tanea says. “It was about engaging with people and using amazing art as a wonderful catalyst for conversations about autism.”
Some of those conversations were between autistic people, who may have few opportunities to meet socially. “The autistic community tends to have very few social events because the communication, social and sensory differences we have can hinder our ability to socialise in typical ways.
“We need a theme or focus to bring us together and the exhibition gave us that. We were connected by being a part of this project and that gave the artists a great sense of self-belief, identity and pride.”
With this success behind them, iNDx wants to take the work further: for example, providing an autistic arts hub where people can connect, learn and feel the freedom of expressing their identity through the arts.
“Connection is an imperative part of wellbeing and everyone benefits when art is the focus for that,” Tanea says.
iNDx – Autistic Arts and Culture Aotearoa is a member of the Arts For All Otago Network. If you would like to become a member, please contact Claire Noble (T: 04 802 4349 E: email@example.com).