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Awarded Honorary Doctorate - London South Bank University

"Rachel Gadsden is an acclaimed artist whose work explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope, drawing on her own personal experience of living with a chronic hereditary lung condition and visual impairment. She was made an Honorary Doctor of the University."

It is with huge excitement that London South Bank University  awarded me an Honorary Doctorate for my artistic practice and vision, which was presented at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, on Monday 7th November.

Citation read by Dean Janet Jones of the School of Creative Industries LSBU:

Pro Chancellor. Our honorary graduate this morning is an artist who works both across mediums and across boundaries. Through ambitious projects in far-flung locations ranging from South Africa to Palestine to South America, she explores universal themes of fragility, survival and hope, drawing on her own personal experience of living with disability. She also demonstrates an extraordinary ability to bring people together. She is Rachel Gadsden.  

Given the strong element of live performance that is woven into much of her work, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Rachel initially trained as an actress. But although she loved performing, her health got in the way. Rachel was born with a severe lung condition, and it wasn’t long before the constant touring and exposure to cigarette smoke began to take its toll. ‘My lungs pretty much failed,’ she says. ‘That was when I was first fitted with my syringe driver. It injects me every minute, and that’s what keeps me alive.’

The health crisis also meant that she needed to find a new way to make a living. Having always painted, a move into the visual arts was the obvious step to take. Initially, Rachel focused on commercial work, producing paintings for hotels and interior designers. Alongside this, she was developing her own practice and starting to sell some of her own work. ‘I realised I didn’t want to paint pretty pictures for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘So I went to art school.’

Given the strong element of live performance that is woven into much of her work, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Rachel initially trained as an actress. But although she loved performing, her health got in the way. Rachel was born with a severe lung condition, and it wasn’t long before the constant touring and exposure to cigarette smoke began to take its toll. ‘My lungs pretty much failed,’ she says. ‘That was when I was first fitted with my syringe driver. It injects me every minute, and that’s what keeps me alive.’

The health crisis also meant that she needed to find a new way to make a living. Having always painted, a move into the visual arts was the obvious step to take. Initially, Rachel focused on commercial work, producing paintings for hotels and interior designers. Alongside this, she was developing her own practice and starting to sell some of her own work. ‘I realised I didn’t want to paint pretty pictures for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘So I went to art school.’

Since then, Rachel’s career has gone from strength to strength, thanks at least in part to her determination to, as she puts it, ‘get out there, rather than hiding in a studio’. A series of exhibitions and residencies – including one in a colliery in South Wales – resulted in her being invited to apply for the post of artist-in-residence at Hampton Court, the first to hold that position since Holbein. That led in turn to an invitation to become the first artist for Parliamentary Outreach in the lead up to the 2010 General Election, during which time she worked closely with speaker John Bercow on ‘Rethink Parliament’, a project designed to raise awareness of mental health problems.

In 2011, Rachel won a commission as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The project, Unlimited Global Alchemy, saw her travel to South Africa to work with people living with HIV and AIDS and culminated in an exhibition of artworks, seven short films and a live performance combining visual arts and dance which was performed at a number of venues including the South Bank Centre. She also created ‘Starting Line’, which told the story of Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the Paralympic Games, through art, film and dance, as part of the London 2012 Paralympic Torch celebrations.

More recently, she represented the UK at a major exhibition in Qatar, which formed part of the region’s first ever festival focusing on disability. She created and led Al Noor – Fragile Vision, an Arts Council England and British Council funded project, which aimed to bring together disabled artists in the Middle East and UK to develop their practice and share their experiences. She has been working with a group of bereaved women in east Jerusalem, and to create artwork.

In collaboration with Bradley Hemmings MBE, director of Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, she has also just completed an animation and series of large-scale drawings on glass – for the Paralympic Heritage Torch Lighting Ceremony and the opening ceremony in Rio.

Looking back over this extraordinary body of work, a number of clear themes emerge. ‘As a disabled person myself, I am drawn to other marginalised groups,’ Rachel says. ‘There is a political sensibility at work there too. But ultimately it is about sharing stories and exploring what it means to be human.’ For Rachel personally, these themes are perhaps more resonant than ever, as she now faces the prospect of losing her sight. ‘I’m starting to experiment with sculpture and 3D virtual drawing now,’ she says. ‘I will always find other ways to communicate my vision.’ 

Away from work, Rachel enjoys visiting art galleries and, as she puts it, ‘finding space to think’, whether on long walks or sailing on the boat she and husband Tim keep on the Essex coast. She is a patron of Dash, a disability-led visual arts organisation in Shropshire, and Patron of the Arts at the QE2 School in Horsham, which has specialist status in the Performing Arts and caters for pupils with profound learning difficulties and complex needs. And she has recently lent her support and is Patron for Freewheelers, a Surrey-based theatre company that brings together disabled and non-disabled performers to create exciting and innovative work.

Now, pro chancellor, I present her to you for the award of Honorary Doctor of the University.

Rachel Gadsden's acceptance Speech:

Pro Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Pro Vice Chancellor, Dean, graduates and honoured guests.

Thank you for bestowing on me this Honorary Doctorate award - I am utterly delighted and thrilled to accept it.

I also congratulate the students receiving their awards today and thank the staff at the London South Bank University and the parents and friends for supporting and inspiring you to gain your degrees.

Exactly 18 years ago I walked out of the South Bank with my degree, and I remember we celebrated and took family photos and looked forward to an exciting creative adventure.

Disabilities are often perceived as hindrances, but I have never seen mine in that way, you quickly learn that even if you live a very long life, it is ultimately short for all of us.

My first public commission and artistic residency took me to a derelict colliery in South Wales where the closure of the colliery had created a landscape that in some senses reflected a loss of hope.  It became clear though that art had the potential to provoke social and cultural change. From the colliery, I went on to explore those derelict asylum hospitals – searching amongst the ruins for any lost faces, painting their stories and giving them a voice.

The Directors at Hampton Court Palace came across my asylum work on the Internet – and their chance discovery took me in a different direction.  I spent a fabulous year at the Palace, but underpinning my work are themes relating to human rights; and with the Parliament commissions, I was given the opportunity to speak out about disability discrimination. I relished the opportunity to be part of Parliament; where the artwork I created, was seen by people who were influencing legislation and change.

In 2010 I saw an artwork in a Cambridge museum; and here I sensed that its creator had had a similar life experience to me. After a long search for her, I received a message from a shack in Khayelitsha Township in South Africa, which said, “I think you are looking for me”.

Soon after I was awarded a Cultural Olympiad commission to create an artistic partnership with this activist and the Bambanani Group, who all have HIV/Aids. The idea was to explore our shared humanity, as survivors.

The resulting exhibition and performances were seen subsequently by the Qatari Government, here at South Bank, and in 2013, as part of Qatar UK Year of Culture, “This Breathing World” an exhibition of 50 of my paintings was opened by HRH Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Qatari Minister of Culture, in Doha.

The purpose of the exhibition was to raise awareness about disability in societies, where it may be hidden. I grew up in the Middle East.  Having access to modern medicine is lifesaving for me; and it is increasingly important to me to be part of the impetus for disabled and vulnerable people around the world to also have access to the best that is available.

Relevant is the fact I attempt to create opportunities for individuals and communities to speak out and be heard through creativity and artistic collaboration.  I am hugely grateful for the patrons, and funders, and my family and friends who support the same vision.

I am working now in Palestine, where the disempowering effects of conflict affect the disabled and vulnerable most especially.  I will be returning there soon to mount a collaborative exhibition to celebrate International Day of People with Disabilities in December.  Securing funding and confronting political and religious barriers may be a challenge; but it is not an insurmountable one.

Most of all it has been vital to have the chance to meet so many people from around the world, who share similar values, and through creativity, for us to have the opportunity to consider together - what it is to be human.

The writer Franz Kafka wrote in his diary on October 19th 1921.

“Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive - needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate...but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.”

So as we leave with our awards today – we must promise ourselves that we will go out into the world with an adventurous spirit, embrace our challenges, and, most of all, never forget to enjoy every breath we have.

To hear my Honorary Doctorate Citation presented by Dean Janet Jones and my acceptance speech please, listen from 37.37mins.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BqHtkbkXR4&feature=player_embedded

London South Bank University interview with Rachel

http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/case-studies/rachel-gadsden-honorary-doctor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Rachel Gadsden, 06:11am 08/11/16

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