Nnena Kalu. Work in Progress

In April, artist Jane Thakoordin visited Glasgow with an Engine Micro Bursary. As well as Glasgow International Festival, she visited former colleagues at Project Ability, a visual arts organisation that creates opportunities for people with disabilities and those with lived experience of mental ill-health.

My arts practice is participatory, which means that without people other than me, my art work would not exist. My career path has been a pretty winding road, and I have combined professional roles as a mental health social worker, manager, university lecturer and artist over the past 30 years.

As a socially engaged artist, I am drawn to working in partnership with people who are marginalised, often disenfranchised and often “othered” by society. Collaborations with people seeking asylum, women, looked after children, people labelled with mental health difficulties and learning disabled people have resulted in authentic friendships and professional relationships, with the added bonus of some great art created along the way.

I am currently developing work with artistic collaborators who have a diagnosis of psychosis, as part of my performative arts project The Black and Blue Collective.

It was this that lead me up to Glasgow in April to visit my old colleagues at Project Ability. A fully equipped set of studios, professional “white wall” gallery space and experimental spaces mean that Project Ability sits head and shoulders above so many other “inclusive arts projects” that I have been involved with. Learning disabled artists and artists with lived experience of mental health difficulties are supported by a range of knowledgeable, experienced, valued based volunteers and workers (many of whom have lived experience themselves) to create and express in a way that reflects art school practices. Throughout my career in mental health services, I have become disillusioned by services that proport to promote creativity with arts groups. Further enquiry elicits that this has usually meant a metal cupboard (often locked in between classes) full of the cheapest, utilitarian bulk purchased pencils, felt tip pens, photocopier A4 paper, pom poms, sequins, googly eyes….and so on it goes!

Project Ability values people as artists first and foremost, and supports them to develop, interrogate and explore ideas in a creative environment that oozes experimentation and risk.

Nnena Kalu at Project Ability

As part of GIF 2018, the gallery space had been occupied by London-based learning disabled artist Nnena Kalu. To create her work, she binds and layers materials to create large, colourful structures that wrap themselves around the gallery, reacting to the size, shape and environment of each new setting.

Bright colours and textures adorn her wrapped installations and “they grow from a small curious object in the space, into a large, immersive presence which transforms the gallery into a vessel for these organic forms to inhabit.” It was mesmerising to watch the film of Kalu’s 4-day residency in the gallery as her work became reality. Nnena does not use words to communicate, and the space is filled with the sound of cellophane being stretched and wrapped, gaffer tape being unrolled as she methodologically wraps her constructions.

The space and facilities at Project Ability contribute to ensuring the project and the artist members are perceived and promoted as artists. The recent Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing Report 2017 states that “art can make a significant contribution to addressing …issues faced by our health and social care systems.” This is never so needed as now. I know from my experiences both within the mental health services as a professional, and externally as an artist and lecturer, austerity has had a devastating effect on many services that have played an essential part in people’s recovery and community support. Project Ability has managed to weather the funding storms by evolving into an inclusive, artist-focussed environment.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with the artists and volunteers, creating work collaboratively and talking in the immersive energetic and dynamic exhibition space created by Nnena.

To ensure I got maximum benefit from my Micro Bursary, I went to as many GIF exhibitions as I could. 15 shows and one seminar in one day – surely that’s a record?