I recently took a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to visit the Van Gogh exhibit with a couple of friends. While there, we looked at other exhibits along the way.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of photographs displayed featuring disability.
This photograph by George Dureau, titled B. J. Robinson is quite striking and was featured at the museum. The caption for the photo read, “There is no looking past B. J. Robinson’s disability in George Dureau’s carefully composed portrait of his artistic collaborator and friend. This direct photograph celebrates Robinson’s body, drawing attention to its aesthetic form. His position, in profile, showcases the stability of his sculpted arms, the long curve of his muscled shoulders, and the taut arch of his back, forms that are echoed and emphasized in the shadows behind him. While Robinson’s alluring features and direct gaze subtly suggest a poetic inner character, the elements of the photograph accentuate the complexity and beauty of his physical body.”
What a descriptor of this photo! Dureau wanted to showcase the beauty of Robinson, not dwell on his disability. While the disability cannot help but be showcased as it is a part of who Robinson is, it brings to light all the other strengths that he has because of his disability. This is an important piece because it shows how there is strength and beauty in difference.
The other photographs I found striking were from a collection titled People with AIDS by Nicholas Nixon. Not to suggest that AIDS is a disability, however, these photos were taken when the AIDS epidemic was still an anomaly and people suffering from AIDS were ostracized and treated differently, in much the same way disabled people are.
These are a few of the more difficult images to look at that were displayed at the museum. These sensitive photographs sought to create empathy and understanding for victims suffering from HIV/AIDS. As the caption for these photos explain, “When this series was first shown at MoMA in 1988, protesters distributed fliers to museum visitors, reminding them that each of Nixon’s subjects was ‘a human being whose health has deteriorated not simply due to a virus, but due to government inaction, the inaccessibility of affordable health care, and institutionalized neglect in the forms of heterosexism, racism, and sexism.'”
We can make a similar case for people who have a disability, be it physical or cognitive. People who have certain disabilities don’t always have access to the care they need because they are a marginalized group that I find gets ignored easily or plain taken advantage of. Knowing what we know now about HIV/AIDS, we look at these photographs and find it disturbing that as a society, we treated victims so harshly. Why don’t we talk about this when it comes to disability?
I think it’s time we take a look at our past and use it as a learning tool to help a different set of marginalized people. What do you think? Can we make the case that these situations are similar? Can we change how we view, understand, and advocate for disabilities? I think we can! And I think looking at these two separate artists encountered at the museum and their work can help start a conversation. Let’s make a change!