Barry Lee's 'fuck you' to ableism

The local artist is done with your sympathy

"If you see someone who didn't have disabilities in a relationship with someone who did, oftentimes media calls the person without disabilities 'brave' or 'courageous' for being with them," visual artist Barry Lee says, "when in reality, loving someone different from you isn't a charity act.?"

His latest exhibition, How Nice, features self-portraits that test the sympathies of people without disabilities. "Another Day," shows Lee eating a bowl of raspberries while pink-gloved hands pry at his gums and eye with surgical tools. "Shame," another self portrait, juxtaposes Lee's somber expression against a bright blue desert sky as feminine arms envelop his chest. In both, Lee stares straight at the camera as if measuring the viewer up, a dare for those interested in something a little more complicated, less ableist and less self-absorbing than feelings of sympathy.

Born with Nager Syndrome, a condition that affects the development of the face, hands and arms, Lee is no stranger to the less kind aspects of Southern hospitality. Strangers ask Lee to explain his syndrome, and he regularly hears the expression, "Bless your heart." Lee has become intimately acquainted with how good intentions become ableist: invasive, sympathetic and condescending comments about his disability.


"'How nice' is a sympathetic expression," Lee tells Creative Loafing, "but, honestly, it's also a 'fuck you' to those who sympathize me for my differences." The show opened at Murmur Gallery on July 29, and will be on view three more times before closing with an artist's talk on Sun., Sept. 10.

How Nice is an obvious departure from the bright and friendly murals Lee has painted on Octane Westside, in Cabbagetown and other places across Atlanta. In contrast, How Nice has a little more of a bite than a friendly approach, Lee says. The show explores aspects of Lee's identity and experiences often made invisible by society: the intersections of his disabilities, his sexuality, his gender. The bite, rising out of years of ableism and biphobia, comes naturally. "Disability itself contains a lot of facets: gender, race, religion and sexuality," Lee explains. "With so many facets comes the need to create representation constantly."

Exploring sexuality in How Nice was essential to tackling the ableism he experiences first- and secondhand. Though he prefers to keep his private life, well, private, Lee recognizes the importance of tapping into the personal to create change.

Lee confronts the camera in his self-portraits, proclaiming through the lens, "I don't feel as sorry for myself, as you might feel sorry for me," he says. "I knew I couldn't change people's sympathy fully," Lee says, "but I did want their sympathy to be tested."

Besides the self-portraits and other pieces that are still on display, the opening of How Nice also included one-night-only installations that played with themes of sympathy and empathy. The stand-out piece of the night was "Freak Show," a performance installation where willing participants, after putting in earplugs to simulate a deafening experience, were led onto stage for an audience to glare and laugh at them.

Regular occurrences in Lee's life inspired the piece. "Oftentimes when I am in public purchasing something, I get stared or gawked at. I never know when this will happen, but I have to continue to live my life, to buy food for myself, or to be with my friends," Lee says. "And I can't allow the fear of people staring or laughing at me stop me from living. I wanted to create a piece that reflected this experience."

Image "Shame"Jeremy Brown

Like the rest of How Nice, "Freak Show," disrupts mainstream perspectives of people with disabilities and a way for Lee to build community. During the opening, a lot of strangers went up to Lee and shared personal experiences relating his.

"Between making this work and having people telling me their stories, I don't feel as alone as I did before making this," Lee says. "Representation matters, and it takes people being true to themselves to help create better representation to hopefully slowly erase the misconceptions of disability."

View How Nice on Sun., Aug. 20, 3-5 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 3, 2-4 p.m. Artist talk: Sun. Sept. 10, 4-7 p.m. Murmur, 100 Broad St. S.W. www.murmurmedia.org.

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