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Tanya at the Tate

Tanya Raabe

Raabe’s work is her own, forged from a collision between a disabling world, the circus, the woman, a life so familiar with impairment to render it ordinary in an extraordinary way; and an ability to present all this as alchemy. (Tony Heaton, Director, Shape)

When I caught up with Tanya Raabe this month, she described herself, amidst fits of her infectious giggles, as having ‘the time of her life’. And it shows across every social network she inhabits; she’s delivering a heady mix of residencies, directorial flourishes (Tanya is currently an Associate Artistic Director of Fittings MultiMedia Arts) and of course, a new set of wonderful paintings emerging from her live portrait work at Tate. Tanya has spent Spring 2010 moving up and down the country designing and delivering her Revealing Culture – Hands On residency, exploring ‘identity and disability culture in contemporary portraiture and the nude’. As part of this, Tanya is delving into collections on display in Tate Liverpool and Tate Modern devising ‘a visionary portrait of disability culture’, while creating ten new portraits of disabled cultural figures.

I first worked with Tanya at Tate Modern a few years back on Outside In, a project exploring the interface between disability, disabled artists and architects. It was a seminal moment where an unusual gathering of minds and perspectives were left to collaborate and make art works in the Turbine Hall.

At that time, Tanya was frustrated that her ‘Who’S WhO – Defining Faces of an Arts Movement’ project had not found a place within mainstream. Things have moved on since then, and whilst she would admit that her current Tate residency is ‘still a bit locked into the community programme’, she is very happy and comfortable with this very valuable step in the right direction.

Tanya making a self portrait

The fuel in rejection

I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get me going rather than retreat. (Sylvester Stallone)

Tanya has taken a while to get to the Tate. She’s no stranger to rejection and criticism along the way.

You might say her work and approach has either been seen to be too risky, or not risky enough. It’s how she responds in the face of this.

“Mainstream art galleries criticised Who’S WhO for ‘not having a ‘disability content.’ They just saw faces and that didn’t mean anything to them,” says Tanya.

She talks lucidly about finding ways to ‘come in again’; to re-invent the work in a different plane or avenue and reconnect, in the face of disappointment, using the very nub of rejection as creative fuel.

Whilst her voice might at times portray a certain surprise at the ‘Tate spaces’ she is currently working in, she is very much a strategist at heart, and a fighter with it, and I find her tenacity inspiring.

Tanya's father the ringmaster

Fronting the flock

The V is made up of fewer people now, but those people are very strong individuals who are very clear as to the purpose of the journey. (Tanya Raabe)

When asked about leadership, I almost expect her to say that she doesn’t see herself as a leader, but I’m wrong. She does.

Tanya warms to the leadership metaphor of geese flying in a V formation and talks about the Disability Arts Movement having fewer geese in the pack now.

She is clear the Disability Arts sector is changing, but as not waning. To feel and be part of a strong movement informs her leadership style. She needs the 71 % greater flying range that comes from flying in formation.

She’s not interested in a solo flight, instead favouring flight that allows for falling behind, giving opportunities for others to take the lead and have their moment. She is quite clear that she wouldn’t have been able to be who she is without the strength of fellow artists in the movement ‘honking behind her’ as and when she takes the lead.

And who she is directly seeded from her Circus past: born to a dancing mother and a Ringmaster father who trained horses and elephants.

Tanya is deeply committed to ensuring that people have their space in the ring. We talk about the potential in Open Space Technology as a leadership device and a way of meeting that allows people to come in at their own pace, in their own time.

According to Harrison Owen, originator of the term and the approach, Open Space works because it harnesses and acknowledges the power of self-organisation and honours the diversity of those gathered in a space, who generate an agenda together.

‘Give people a little bit of encouragement to engage, give them time to think about it, evaluate it at a subconscious level,’ says Tanya. This belief has absolutely underpinned her work with learning disabled artists and community.

read more about Open Space
Simone Aspiss sitting for Tanya

Sitting pretty

Taking time and working in relationship also sits at the heart of her portrait sittings.

She connects with those who sit for her as they mull over personal artefacts and objects they bring into the space. They start to unfold as they talk about what really matters and become animated and show more of who they are.

It is then that she can begin to realise the work. It strikes me that this process has strong coaching qualities with its ability to reveal things that lie very much beneath the surface.

Some of the sittings are private and not open to the public, but many are open. In Tate Modern she is working in Studio C, right in the middle of the Surrealist exhibition.

The public hover around the doorway, some come in and draw and chat. Quite often Tanya does not take centre stage but has her back to those taking part, allowing for the sitter to have a dialogue with people in the room and to draw her at work.

The people she is painting are naturally quite outspoken and this dynamic works well. To her pleasure, outside the door, hangs a picture that almost heralds the work underway.

Christian Shad's Agosta, The Pigeon-Chested Man and Rasha, the Black Dove are described as ‘an unsettling portrayal of the objectification of the body, voyeurism and social alienation focusing on the male as well as the female nude.’ This delights her.

Read more about her residency on Disability Arts Online
A child's take on Matisse Collage

Bird of prey

It’s all in their absorption in the piece they are looking at and that informs the timing when I come in to ask them about it. (Tanya Raabe)

The need for internal and external dialogue also informs Tanya’s approach to the research side of her time at Tate as she explores the artwork there in conversation with the public.

In this guise she’s more akin to a bird of prey than a goose. As an artist, she has a real skill in being able to look for miniscule visual signals.

‘If they are giving you a tiny little bit of eye contact, there’s a clue in that. It’s all in their absorption in the piece they are looking at and that informs my timing and when it’s right to swoop in to ask them about it.’ she says.

She wants disabled people and artists to have some reference with the gallery and the art works; and for those who engage with her work to see disability, not as this special thing but something that everyone can get something from. This drives her work absolutely.

As part of her research she’s looking for artworks where you may not really think about disability as well as those pieces where it’s obviously there.

Few know that Matisse made his collages working from his bed, employing other people to support him. This hidden fact embodies Tanya’s strongly held belief that ‘it’s ok for people to support us.’

Social network

They are coming in and interacting – they are not disabled, but they know what it is and they are very supportive (Tanya Raabe)

Over the last few years I’ve noticed Tanya using social networking more and more to push her ideas and work.

She’s been surprised with the take-up of interest by people who have found her through her placement of the project as she develops her use of social media.

Confidence is something she’s had to learn and pushing herself out there has made it clear that there really is a whole new audience for what she is doing.

As a result of this, Tanya has found that new people, not necessarily disabled, are coming in and interacting, and they know what the work is about and they are very supportive.

‘Social media is a proven way of me putting myself out there, to mix my audience’ she says and as I write this case study , a message appears in my inbox with her latest call for people to vote for someone to sit for her to find ‘The Public’s Choice.’

This is a chance for people to nominate either a disabled sports personality, or a disabled athlete or a disabled sports person, to have their portrait painted as part of the Revealing Culture: Head On collection.

Find out more by clicking the link below.

Read more at Revealingcultureheadon blog
part of Tanya's self portrait

The last word

I'm so up for it. (Tanya Raabe)

Towards the end of my delicious conversation with this extraordinary artist, I cannot help but think how authentic she is, how true to her beginnings and how ‘on purpose'.

My final question is about whether anyone has painted her portrait. She laughs and says no, though she is painting herself.

So there’s a challenge for all of you out there. Who is willing to catch this beautiful bird and commit her to canvas? (If I could, I would)

Who’s up for it?

(Sarah Pickthall for Sync, March 2010)

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