Tàcharan: Auto-Ethnography Through Painting, Part Three

“So, in writing this paper, I feel a pressure to establish myself as a trustworthy source. Scientific evidence exists, I want to tell you, for autistic adults as critical autism experts. Best of all, the research in question was conducted by non-autistic adults, the critical autism experts. The reliance on nonautistics in my autistic claim to knowledge invokes Audre Lorde’s famous remark that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Perhaps, entering non-autistic, positivist academia through a back door is not my best approach. Instead, I will write from a position ontologically indistinct from the subjects I am writing about. Autism discourse and I are co-constituted.” (deHooge 2019, 4)

The painting is reaching a point where I am starting to paint intuitively and draw out meanings and connections that I was not anticipating in my original conception. I find that this process is amplified as I engage in a more intensive reading process than I would normally undertake for a painting that was not intended for an academic audience. As I read I find the readings suggesting images. I am never quite sure what connections those images have to what I am reading and thinking about until I unpack them through painting.

An unfinished painting of an infant in a cradle. The infant is connected to wires and snuggled up to a stuffed wolf. There is a yellow canary on the floor and another flying out the partially open window. Two dark blue silhouettes indicate where additional birds will be painted.
An unfinished painting of an infant in a cradle. The infant is connected to wires and snuggled up to a stuffed wolf. There is a yellow canary on the floor and another flying out the partially open window. Two dark blue silhouettes indicate where additional birds will be painted.

The process of painting the bassinet has been a particularly productive as I have worked on Tàcharan. The inclusion of the bassinet began as purely utilitarian. I wanted to reference changeling lore and an image of an infant in a cradle seemed appropriate. I wanted to hint at colonialism’s role in producing stolen child narratives, both figuratively, in the case of autism discourses, and literally, in the case of residential schools. The empty tiginaagan seemed like a logical choice to express that idea.

A detail of a painting shows the corner of a cradle. On the wall behind it is a child’s growth chart with stylized images of giraffes. A canary is on the floor below the growth chart, looking into a closet where an empty cradle board is visible in the shadows.

As I worked out the details of the painting I began to consider how I wanted to juxtapose these ideas. One thing I was clear on was that I didn’t want to present a simplistic dichotomy. It has been argued that the tiginaagan is intimately connected with Anishinaabe conceptions of childhood and the role of children as people who are a central part of a community (Nahwegahbow 2013). In this way it could be said that the cradle and the tiginaagan represent very different philosophies on child-rearing, and on person-hood and society more generally. These differences in philosophy in turn impact the ways in which disability is experienced. I wanted to gesture towards these differences without demonizing the cradle, or giving the impression that these represent diametrically opposed philosophies. The cradle shape I settled on is an intentional echo of the curved bow of the tiginaagan. This echo is reinforced by the hanging of the dream-catcher on the cradle, much as dream-catchers and navel amulets would be hung from the bows of tiginaaganan (Nahwegahbow 2013, 111-112).

A close up detail of a painting shows a small dream catcher hung with yellow canary feathers. The texture of the canvas and brush strokes are visible.
A close up detail of a painting shows a small dream catcher hung with yellow canary feathers. The texture of the canvas and brush strokes are visible.

While I did not want to outright demonize the cradle as a stand in for “western” child rearing practices, I did want it to invoke colonialism as a system which is literally framing the cyborg infant. The cradle with its bright green hue gives the infant’s complexion a pale, greenish cast, making it ambiguous as to whether the slightly uncanny colouring is inherent to the infant or a product of its surrounding.

I also felt intuitively that the curtains on the cradle needed to be white and delicate. At first I included this because it felt right. After working with the image for a while I suspect that the image was suggested to me by the following quotation from Gzhibaeassigaekwe’s we autistics, we villages, we humanoids:

“Autism Speaks not only caters to this systemic fear-privilege, but suppresses the reality of systemic violence against Black and Brown autistic humanoids and silences our voices because we do not fit neatly inside the victimized-white image that makes autistic and disabled bodies marketable within a capitalist system. Even the idea of a ‘cure’ is inherently radicalized because the “cured” body is white. The fear-privilege narrative of Autism Speaks hinges on perfecting the white male body and a powerful counter to that narrative hinges on autistics of colour speaking in the forefront of that resistance and strongly centring queer and women-identified autistics… we must question and name more deeply the violence of what is being prescribed as normal when it is itself so steeped in narratives of violence and racism”. (Meunier 2017, 432)

A detail of a painting showing an infant in a bassinet. The bassinet is surrounded by a white lace curtain which is blowing open. The infant is snuggled into a stuffed wolf, and is connected to wires and monitors. A brown headed cowbird perches on the side of the cradle. A broken flower pot is on the ground beside the cradle and a dream catcher hangs from the curtain rod above the infant.
A detail of a painting showing an infant in a bassinet. The bassinet is surrounded by a white lace curtain which is blowing open. The infant is snuggled into a stuffed wolf, and is connected to wires and monitors. A brown headed cowbird perches on the side of the cradle. A broken flower pot is on the ground beside the cradle and a dream catcher hangs from the curtain rod above the infant.

As I worked I began to question building the painting around the image of an infant. Am I reinforcing the infantilization of Autistic people in doing so? Is my portrayal of myself as an infant an attempt to counter the feelings of being monstrous, and the neo-liberal responcibilization of Disabled people for our own impairments? Would this presumed innocence of the infant undermine the very sense of the uncanny, and of the monstrous that I want to explore?

In the end, while those questions still sit uncomfortably with me, I believe that there is value in tackling narratives around Autistic children in their own register. One painting does not have to accomplish everything. I can assert my adulthood in other works and in other ways. This painting is about narratives around Autistic children, but it was not painted by a child.

The following three quotes were also influential in the process of bringing Tàcharan about, and I found them coming to mind again and again as I worked out the details of the painting:

“In its medical form, autism discourse focuses on a deficiency in normative brain make up and functioning, causing behaviour that is lacking in social normativity, and reduces the autistic to, on the one hand, the status of object of quantitative research, and on the other hand, a social anomaly that has merely negative characteristics relative to the norm. This focus on autism as a deficit obscures any positive conception of the autistic: the autistic is merely ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’ relative to the non-autistic norm. The medical discourse thus loses sight of autism as a personal, lived, everyday reality”  (Van der Palen 2014, 7-8)

Second, all margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolize its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them is marginal stuff of the most obvious kind. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body. So also have bodily parings, skin, nail hair clippings and sweat. The mistake is to treat bodily margins in isolation from all other margins. There is no reason to assume any primacy for the individual’s attitude to his own bodily and emotional experience any more than for his cultural and social experience.” (Douglas 1966, 150)

“Gould claims that Lamarck’s model of evolution fits the facts in explaining cultural change in human societies better than Darwin’s. He argues that social change has particular properties that make it a special case within the broader realm of change within nature. Specifically, we can develop new cultural capacities in our lifetime and pass them on to the next generation. Alan grew up in a country where polio had been largely eliminated by vaccination while his parents lived through polio epidemics that saw kids confined to their own backyards. The knowledge to prevent polio is a cultural legacy developed in one generation and passed down to the next. At the same time, it is not true that the physical characteristics that individuals develop during their lifetime can be passed on genetically. An individual who lifts weights to build muscle does not change her or his genetic code in such a way as to produce more muscular offspring. Lamarck thus seems to fit the facts in explaining cultural change while Darwin fits the facts in explaining biological evolution.” (Sears, and Cairns 2013, 9)

Building on the themes of margins, of unsettling, and of transgressing expectations, the composition of Tàcharan intentionally departs from an aesthetic of “Western” painting which prioritizes order and stability. Instead Tàcharan purposefully inverts the triangular composition, so popular during the Rennesance.

Madonna del cardellino by Raphael, 1505–1506. An image of the Virgin Mary with Jesus and John the Baptist, demonstrating a triangular composition that emphasizes balance, order and symmetry.

Much of the visual weight in Tàcharan is at the top of the image, with the foot of the cradle drawing the eye down to a point at the bottom centre. The elements of the painting draw the viewer’s eyes around the margins, never resting in the centre of the painting which is composed largely of negative space.

A completed painting shows a cyborg baby in an antique bassinet. Birds are entering and exiting through the open window. They have knocked over a flower pot that lies broken on the floor. One bird is pulling on the wires connected to the cyborg baby's arm. Another bird near the closest directs the viewers gaze to an empty tiginaagan concealed in the shadows of a closet. On the wall behind the bassinet are three paintings of flowers and a child's growth chart. The composition of the painting is top heavy, and the viewer's eye is moved around an area of negative space created by an empty wall behind the bassinet, putting the entire painting slightly off balance.
A completed painting shows a cyborg baby in an antique bassinet. Birds are entering and exiting through the open window. They have knocked over a flower pot that lies broken on the floor. One bird is pulling on the wires connected to the cyborg baby’s arm. Another bird near the closest directs the viewers gaze to an empty tiginaagan concealed in the shadows of a closet. On the wall behind the bassinet are three paintings of flowers and a child’s growth chart. The composition of the painting is top heavy, and the viewer’s eye is moved around an area of negative space created by an empty wall behind the bassinet, putting the entire painting slightly off balance.

As I mentioned in my first post, the species of eun-sìthean (fairie birds) were selected for their symbolic significance. The canaries are a call back to Joyce Green’s seminal article: Canaries in the Mines of Citizenship: Indian Women in Canada (Green, 2001). Disabled people’s vulnerability too, has been compared to canaries in coal mines (Belt 2016, 1491; Lindner et al. 2018, 86).

The brown headed cow birds stand in as an analogue to the cuckoo bird, which also is called eun-sìth in Scottish Gaelic in reference to its supernatural associations (McRoberts 2004, 49). Unlike the cuckoo who is at the northern extent of its breeding range in southwestern Ontario, the cowbirds are a familiar sight in my local area, their contrasting brown heads distinguishing them amidst the flocks of starlings who raise them. I chose the cowbirds over cuckoos to better ground the painting in my local space.

The final act in painting Tàcharan was to stitch some of the the cyborg infant’s implants with copper electrical wire. The wire was salvaged from a t.v. dumped in a local natural area where I like to walk and it is a material I like to return to in both my painting and jewellery. With the inclusion of needlework Tàcharan draws on a longstanding feminist art tradition which destabilizes the boundaries between “art” and “craft” (Chadwick 2007, 363). Transgressing this boundary is important for me as an Autistic artist, and as an Indigenous artist, both identities whose art and labour has often been relegated to a second-class status, through arbitrary distinctions drawn between “high” art and “craft” (Berlo 1998, 7-20; Lige 2000, 61-64; Mojica 2015, 20). The fact that the needlework is accomplished with electrical wire is also intended as a rejection of attempts to align my work with “nature” in opposition to technology.

“But there is another route to having less at stake in masculine autonomy, a route that does not pass through Woman, Primitive, Zero, the Mirror Stage and its imaginary. It passes through women and other present-tense, illegitimate cyborgs, not of Woman born, who refuse the ideological resources of victimization so as to have a real life. These cyborgs are the people who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many times a “Western” commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another organic group done in by “Western” technology, by writing. These real-life cyborgs… are actively rewriting the texts of their bodies and societies. Survival is at stake in this play of readings.” (Haraway 2016, 59)

a detail of a painting showing an infant connected to wires and monitors. Some of the wires are made of actual electrical wire stitched into the canvas. A brown headed cowbird is depicted puling on one of the wires connected to the infant's arms.
a detail of a painting showing an infant connected to wires and monitors. Some of the wires are made of actual electrical wire stitched into the canvas. A brown headed cowbird is depicted puling on one of the wires connected to the infant’s arms.

References:

Belt, Rabia. 2016. “Contemporary Voting Rights Controversies Through the Lens of Disability.” SSRN Journal. Vol.68(6), pp.1491-1550. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2780693.

Berlo, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. 1998. Native North American Art. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Chadwick, Whitney. 2007. Women, Art, and Society. Fourth Edition. New York.

De Hooge, Anna N. 2019. “Binary Boys: Autism, Aspie Supremacy and Post/Humanist Normativity.” Disability Studies Quarterly 39 (1). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v39i1.6461.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. “External Boundaries.” In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 141–159. London & New York: Routledge.

Green, Joyce. 2001. “Canaries in the Mines of Citizenship: Indian Women in Canada.” Can J Pol Sci 34 (4): 715–38. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0008423901778067.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 3–90. https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816650477.003.0001.

Lige, Sara. 2000. “Adults with Intellectual Disabilities and the Visual Arts: ‘It’s NOT Art Therapy!’” B.F.A. Thesis, Okanagan,British Columbia.

Lindner, Stephan, Ruth Rowland, Margaret Spurlock, Stan Dorn, and Melinda Davis. 2018. “‘Canaries in the Mine…’ the Impact of Affordable Care Act Implementation on People with Disabilities: Evidence from Interviews with Disability Advocates.” Disability and Health Journal 11 (1): 86–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2017.04.003.

McRoberts, Kirsty. 2004. “Shape Shifting, Metamorphosis and the Cycle of Life and Death in Early Modern Scottish Poetry.” Masters Thesis, Glasgow, Scotland: University of Glasgow.

Meunier, J. (Gzhibaeassigaekwe). (2017). We Autistics, We Villages, We Humanoids. In L. Brown, E. Ashkenazy, & M. G. Onaiwu (Eds.), All the Weight of Our Dreams. 425–434. Lincoln, Nebraska: DragonBee Press.

Mojica, Monique. 2015. “Verbing Art.” In Me Artsy, edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, 15–28. Madeira Park, B.C.: D & M Publishers.

Nahwegahbow, Alexandra Kahsenniio. 2013. “Springtime in n’Daki Menan, the Homeland of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai: Babies, Cradleboards and Community Wrapping.” M.A. Thesis, Ottawa (Odawa, Unceded Algonquin Territory), Ontario: Carleton University. https://web.archive.org.

Raphael, Madonna del cardellino, Oil on Wood, 1505–1506, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Sears, Alan, and James Cairns. 2013. A Good Book, In Theory. University of Toronto Press.

Van der Palen, Teunie van der Palen. 2014. “A Cyborg Autobiography: Autism & the Posthuman.” RMA Thesis, Utrecht University.

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