Yesterday I learned a great deal about being invisible as a socially engaged artist – in the context of intersecting minorities.
I am an autistic white Anglo-Spanish woman of middle age. My current project in collaboration with Elena Thomas; The Museum for Object Research, does not on the face of it seem concerned with the kind of social and political issues that characterise my practice. The group concept is one thing but our individual practices are another. Social engagement is woven in to what many of us do.
As I arrive in a very particular context to speak to potential parters I’m confronted with the full force of a fundamental project truth. Our project is white, though not without a core of significant diversity. I knew this – but stepping out of Elena’s car I knew it in a more immediate and profound sense.
Our whiteness as a group is accidental – but we must own our privilege and understand this coincidence as part of a wider privilege in the arts, and of course globally. We must own it and act responsibly.
As I surveyed my surroundings I drank in the crumbling Victoriana and sixties high street design with zest. Unlikely juxtapositions that shouldn’t work, that don’t work – but are fascinating when seen in relief. This is history made visible, laid bare.
A nearby mosque, kids on the streets and cars piled up on the pavements crammed along side roads, while the main artery rumbles with heavy buses heading to half remembered places.
This is an area of Birmingham – a city seemingly in a fit of constant reinvention to the point of frenzy. My old home town.
I experience this autistically – knowing that my love for this moment would be considered intense by many. All day I have been touching the edges of an unknowingly autistic childhood. I have stepped into memory like Dr Gloucester – up to my middle – as a series of tangible intrusions.
In another part of my brain, I register my whiteness as an exclamation mark. I feel my autism thus most often – have I let it eclipse my whiteness as I reach deep into a newly discovered identity?
I gather my senses for a meeting. Quickly I must adapt to strangers. This is my autistic challenge – to follow the conversation and decode it in the moment, to sense the tone in the room and become it, to pass as a typical neurologically privileged human. My act is now second nature with aftershow fatigue as the encore.
I have done this now so often. I know how it will go. I will appear as a privileged white woman of middle age and middle class – articulate and lively (unless my energies run down, unless the room fractures through light and sound input, or I am suddenly too cold. Unless, unless…) Unless my words fail.
But I have measured my journey to this moment carefully, I have conserved my faculties (just) by planning. Only my collaborator knows this, and she knows too that my way in to this meeting is for her to lead, while I find my feet.
We talk pleasantly – I find my moments of entry as Elena carries the conversation. But there is a question of fit, of specific community, of reaching hard to reach groups. Yes.
I see it of course – we don’t fit, which is fine. But I won’t be unseen in my struggle. I gather my courage and my moment comes to say to a small group of strangers – I am an autistic artist.
I explain the roots of this project in my autistic practice, and my funding from Arts Council to make a professional template for my work as project lead. My voice almost leaves me but I hold on.
I am met with blank faces.
We talk some more – the topic is back with our hosts’ agenda. This is of course fair and proper. We are in their space.
But I can’t leave this. I have to ask about our intersections – autistic and black, Muslim and autistic. I am met with a level of confusion – I’m told hesitatingly but in so many words that autism is associated with children and is a stigma among these communities. I nod. It’s a hard sell, I say.
Another level of my privilege. To have an autistic community and access to the current wave of thinking on neurodivergence.
I hold my breath and think about my people.
Did I imagine it or did my voice become a little monotone and robotic as I edged across the tightrope of my disclosure?
As I became visible did I become more stereotypically autistic – did I do something so subtle (I have awesome camouflage and acting skills) as to act up to my audience expectations of an autistic person?
It is highly possible, as my finely attuned social calculator calibrated their responses – or lack of them.
Would they now be looking at me anew?
Or course they would. And with somewhat more curious gazes.
I come away with some serious questions. How can our museum become inter-sectionally inclusive? Am I engaged enough with the whiteness of my autism? I want turn my coat inside out and show you the seams of my difference – my many differences – which like the buildings around me on that windswept afternoon in Birmingham lay bare a history.
This is research at its best. These are the dialogues we must share.
My thanks to our hosts for their input to MfOR R&D thinking and to Elena Thomas for her part in this enriching process.