At the end of September I went to Aarhus, 2017 European City of Culture, to tell some stories associated with a wonderful installation by Mikhail Karikis - The Chalk Factory - about disability, identity, labour and
Rikagaku Chalk Industries has employed people with intellectual disabilities ever since 1960, when a temporary employment contract for two disabled young people was due to be terminated, and their colleagues demanded they be offered permanent work because of their excellent work and team participation.
It is the most beautiful and profound work, set in a disused factory, the perfect space. You go in and the first screen is the telling of a story about Hyottoko, the story I learned from Japanese friends, Tomako San and Yumiko San (https://www.openstorytellers.org.uk/tales-from-japan-and-excess-baggage) by a Japanese Danish musician , playing the bamboo flute associated with the story. As you can see from the image, she is just in black against the silver white background of the factory space. She tells it so beautifully, very spare and still. (Look out for Channel 4 broadcasting a vesion of the story soon)
The installation is huge, 14 big panels so that you feel you are in the chalk factory itself. It follows a day in the schedule, starting silently and then clocking in as one or two people appear and switch on the lights, then the warm up exercises, to the rather childish music - and then an absolute explosion of colour - fluorescent pinks, greens, yellows bursting out, first as a squidgy mess (it's very tactile) and then the processes int urn that change the mass into disciplined lines of little soldier chalks. You see the precise skill of the workers, each doing a specific task. They wear masks, so you are just aware of their hands and their movements. There is a karaoke session where you get to see the people as individuals expressing themselves. Finally with the sweeping up of the chalk dust the place looks like an impressionist painting.
It is quite breathtaking and conveys so many beautiful messages - about the dignity of work, the pride of the people involved, their vulnerability as well. An arts journalist gave it a positive review but ended by asking why you couldn't see that the workers were mentally disabled all through the work! which kind of illustrated exactly the point of the show and demonstrated why the work is needed!
I felt so privileged to be involved with a workshop that accompanied the project, about disabilty, the labour market and usefulness. I told the story of "Silly Jack" - one of Openstoryteller's key tales, which
demonstrates how someone with autism is perfectly capable of work - but his mother does not know how to adapt her communication to make sure he understands her instructions. I also told the legend of The Leech Child, antecedent of the God Ebisu - (http://www.drnicolagrove.com/ebisu-the-laughing-god) illustrating how disability is at the heart of myths of origin, and also the dilemma for disabled people - are they useless, the product of a cursed union, or are they godlike and with simple good hearts...or with special skills and superpowers.
One of the panellists, who was born with a rare spinal atrophy, said that he had been a leech child at birth (he uses a wheelchair but has strong upper limbs) and that he felt guilty because he was a drain on society (this was very moving and terrible to hear). He also told me that a friend has an autistic brother who behaves exactly like Jack when he is sent out to buy shopping... so both stories were perfect. Another panellist, who experiences manic depression spoke really powerfully about the need to value being not doing (very close to my heart- this insight can transform our work with people with profound disabilities). Let's hope this sublime work makes it to Japan and to the UK - and big thanks to Mikhail for the invitation.
see Grove, N. Takano, M., Udo, M. & Mitsudo, Y. (2016), Heroes with a difference: Legends and
personal stories with Japanese school children. SLD Experience, Spring 2016, 3-5.
Grove, N (2012) Story, agency and meaning making: Narrative models and the social inclusion of people with severe and profound intellectual disabilities. Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16, 334-351