Injury and self-identity

Exhibition illuminates the complicated dignity of the disabled

Lingua Physical: Notes From a Body Challenged is a show that aims for a radical reassessment of the disabled.

In large part it succeeds. The women photographed for this exhibition at the Arts for All Gallery are paraplegic or quadriplegic. All are confined to wheelchairs, the majority after car accidents (but a disturbing number due to domestic violence), which altered their lives forever.

Each of the seven women in Lingua Physical is the subject of two photographs that offer a cinematic perspective of alternating close-ups and long shots. Each woman is seen in an elegant portrait, hair flowing over her shoulders, or embracing a boyfriend or holding a pear in her outstretched hand. These are the classic portraits that capture what portraiture traditionally strives to arrest: that thing dwelling in each person called their soul or identity.

But in large part, this is not how most people define these women, who are viewed through the prism of their disability. Placed next to their head-and-shoulders portrait is a wider shot, a cinematic, zoom-out effect that echoes the big picture view of society’s perspective. That image takes in the persistent nagging reality of these women’s lives and the wheelchairs that stand for the devastation of their accidents.

Lingua Physical was a project undertaken almost a year ago by two Atlanta artists Sheila Swift (who now lives in Los Angeles) and Benita Carr after extensive interviews with their subjects: Jaehn Clare, Stephany Glassing, Minna Hong, Marquetta Johnson, Michelle Johnson, Deborah Krotenberg and Teal Sherer.

The exhibition records the seven women’s insights into how their accidents shattered their self-identities and the processes they endured building them back. Accompanying the photographs are extensive quotes rendered in a sober gray wall text throughout the gallery, where the women describe, in often excruciating detail, the devastation of their injuries.

Lingua Physical began as an effort to treat a real taboo in society, the sexual identity of disabled women. “But that changed and it got broader and it ended up being about everything in life,” says Swift.

There is, however, an element of sexuality circulating beneath the images, which in some ways seek to restore a femininity to the women that their disability took away. As Clare notes, “When you live in a body that’s labeled disabled, your womanhood is really not taken very seriously. You stop being a sexual being instantly.” But the images convey a sensuality, capturing Clare holding the brush she uses for her long brown hair and Hong’s iconoclastic style expressed in her sartorial combination of pearls and blue jeans.

But the artists have done these women the great service of not making them into pitiable victims. Instead the photographs are elegant and serene. Many of the women are seen in profile, mimicking the noble posture of oil paintings or of currency. With their hands folded in their lap, dressed up, we get a sense of their composure. That composure is then vastly humanized by their words, which show the raging, sorrowful, wounded, furious, frank depth beneath their cool facades. The effect is unnerving because we are so unused to hearing any woman speak so frankly about fury and despair, much less a disabled woman.

“This wheelchair and this whole experience cracked my heart open, just ripped it open and allowed it to air out in a really, really interesting way. Any strength, any emotional stability, anything you see emanating from me now is real. It is not bravado. It’s solid like a rock,” says Johnson, paralyzed at the age of 33 in a drive-by shooting.

The complicated dignity expressed in these images is their most arresting feature. Because unlike the oil paintings of aristocrats painted by Sargent or Holbein or Gainsborough (which these photographs so often recall), the dignity expressed in Lingua Physical is not the privilege of rank or beauty or power, but that hard won by experience.