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Perspectives Access

Celebrating Disability at The Met

Disabled and Deaf artists reflect on work from the Museum's collection.

Jul 1, 2022

Sculpture of a right ear with the canal indicated by a circular hole, traces of red paint, and five syllabic signs carved into the lobe

To celebrate Disability Pride Month, we’re pleased to present a few highlights from our ongoing social media project #MetAccess. This monthly feature, which debuted in July 2020 in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, welcomes Disabled and Deaf artists to reflect on a specific work from The Met collection that sparks their curiosity or inspires them.

The Museum’s social media and accessibility teams jointly commissioned these posts as a paid opportunity for Disabled and Deaf artists to get direct access to The Met’s global, digital audience. Their unique perspectives and reflections have, in turn, challenged the Museum’s social media followers to consider works of art in a new and more inclusive light.

Auguste Rodin’s The Walking Man (L'homme qui marche)

Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917). The Walking Man (L'homme qui marche), modeled before 1900, cast before 1914. Cast by Alexis Rudier (French). Bronze, green patina, 33 1/2 in., 63 lb. (85.1 cm, 28.6 kg) Gift of Miss G. Louise Robinson, 1940 (40.12.4)

The visuality of texture in his body—both rough and smooth—invite me to touch him. I might describe Walking Man as without a head and both his arms, but I prefer to think of him as a torso, back, shoulders, and legs. Rodin claimed an “aesthetic of the incomplete.”

It is not the absence of limbs that suggests disability here, but the contrasts. Disability is not just a recognizable representation of a Disabled person, it is also legibility, power, bodies, time, and space. Does the fraying torso invoke impairment and age, or are we misreading the energy of his legs? Where, if anywhere, is a stable center from which to begin?

— Alice Sheppard

Cypriot Limestone votive ear

Limestone votive ear, 4th–3rd century B.C. Cypriot. 4th–3rd century B.C. Limestone, 2 1/4 in. (5.7 cm). The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 (74.51.2358) 

Votive offerings are generally presented to gods out of gratitude or to seek a cure. This limestone votive ear from Cyprus has four syllabic signs on its lobe that read, “I belong to a deaf person.” It’s very likely that that person was asking for a cure as there is a long, long history of people trying to fix deafness.

I like how the inscription on the ear was there to state that the ear “belonged” to “a deaf person.” It makes me think of a few Deaf friends of mine who have small tattoos behind their ears: Sound off, Mic Off, Deaf Power, etc. I, another Deaf person, like to think of this as a kind of beautiful declaration to the gods and a sort of twisted continuation of the votive motive: Deafness is mine. Thank you.

— Christine Sun Kim

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Waking Up

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Waking Up, 1896. Lithograph printed in drab green on wove paper, 15 3/4 x 20 7/16in. (40 x 51.9cm). Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.1203.166(5)

Waking up is hard. Getting out of bed with the expectation to be productive these days is even harder. This lithograph, illustrated by the iconic Disabled artist Toulouse-Lautrec, is of a woman cozied up in bed under ruffled sheets with her head half-buried in the pillows, peering at us with her right eye glinting sleepily and her left hand resting softly on a pillow. It made me feel less alone.⁣

I am offering this in recognition of those who are still in bed, don’t want to leave bed, or can’t leave bed. For those who feel as drab green as the ink used for printing this artwork, for those who have felt this way long before this pandemic and will again in the future. Your feelings are valid. Rest is important material.⁣

I’m writing this especially to and for my sick, chronically ill, Disabled friends and communities, who, like myself, might be dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, and depressive feelings compounded by isolation at the moment, making it hard to wake up, get out of bed.⁣

You are not alone or forgotten. Take all the time you need to wake up and get out of bed (or don’t). Stay cozy. Wear a mask. We are in this together.

Ezra Benus

Cornetto in A

Cornetto in A, ca. 1575. German. Ivory, gilt ferrule, 22 1/2 × 1 1/4 × 1 1/4 in. (57.2 × 3.2 × 3.2 cm). Funds from various donors, 1952 (52.96.1)

This is an image of a cornetto made of ivory, an instrument I had never heard of before perusing The Met’s collection. It looks like an elongated and warped recorder with six holes and a slight bulge near the bottom.

The shape of the cornetto reminds me of a very large rib bone. I look up the cornetto on the internet, and my five-year-old and I watch a YouTube video of someone playing a cornetto. The man in the video tells me that a cornetto can mimic a human voice down to vowels and consonants and then demonstrates how he can play the words he is reading.

None of this makes sense to me because sound reaches me through the electronic distortion of my cochlear implant. I ask my kid to describe the sound to me, and they reply that it has a very soft and gentle sound that would make someone just fall asleep if they heard it.

— Liza Sylvestre

Vincent van Gogh’s Corridor in the Asylum

Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890). Corridor in the Asylum, 1889. Oil color and essence over black chalk on pink laid ("Ingres") paper, 25 5/8 x 19 5/16in. (65.1 x 49.1cm). Bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1948 (48.190.2)

Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint-Paul Asylum during a time when staying at a psychiatric hospital was highly stigmatized and treatment could be cruel. The hall in this drawing feels very lonely and confining—even amid the many colors, there’s a sense of desolation.

As a Mad person, there are times when I feel apart from the world and particular experiences of reality. Art is one of the ways I dream of more connected possibilities, and knowing that Van Gogh continued to create when he could during his hospitalization comforts me because it suggests he continued to dream, too, hopefully in ways that brought him solace.⁣

I like to hope the varied colors of this drawing offered a way out of that place and that the single figure in the background, though distant, suggests the possibility of community. Interacting with this drawing, I feel a lot of pain but an even greater hope that somehow, across time, we might arrive somewhere gentler and more loving, where our wellbeing might be reimagined beyond the sane perspective, and we might find peace.

— Jon Soren

A note on terminology: Mad is a political and social identity rooted in the Mad Pride Movement and Mad Studies. As expressed by the Canada Council for the Arts, it is a reclamation of the term “mad” by folks who have been labeled as mentally ill or as having mental health issues. Mad Pride focuses on expressing the unique ways people experience the world in terms of making meaning, developing communities, and creating culture. ⁣Not everyone with psychiatric disabilities identifies as Mad. Within and outside the mental health space, there are many different and sometimes overlapping identities, and everyone comes to their own based on their experiences.⁣

El Greco’s Christ Healing the Blind

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek, 1541–1614). Christ Healing the Blind, ca. 1570. Oil on canvas, 47 x 57 1/2 in. (119.4 x 146.1 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1978 (1978.416)

Strangers have stopped me numerous times to pray for me—most recently, while I was waiting for a prescription at the pharmacy. The time before that, I was at Banana Republic in Seattle.⁣⁣⁣

Years ago, when I was hustling to get to a concert, someone told me that the cause of blindness was demons. He knelt in front of me and asked if I was ready to be forgiven. He offered that I may have done evil in a past life.⁣⁣⁣

Then there was the time when I was encouraged to hide my cane so I wouldn’t curse my friend’s marriage.⁣⁣ Now, as I recall Christ Healing the Blind, I can’t help but wonder—if the blind man was partially sighted, would it still be a miracle?

— Carmen Papalia

Kobayashi Kiyochika’s Fireworks at Ikenohata

Kobayashi Kiyochika (Japanese, 1847–1915). Fireworks at Ikenohata, 1881 (Meiji 14). Woodblock print; ink and color on paper,  8 × 12 3/8 in. (20.3 × 31.4 cm). Gift of Sebastian and Miki Izzard, 2016 (2016.577)

My eyes find rest in this woodblock print. It is more shadow than light, save for a few streaks of light burning in the night sky. The light captures my attention, but the darkness invites me in. I feel one among the shadowy figures watching the fireworks show, hearing the murmurs of delight, feeling the warmth of loved ones and strangers next to me.

I’m reminded of being on a dimly lit dance floor and losing myself in a crowd. The smoky incense sticks lighting the altars at Tao-Buddhist temples. A dark room with soft lights and a place to rest my bones. I think about the disability arts community and the ways we hold space for pain and for joy, the visible and invisible. I’m reminded of the ways we acquaint ourselves with our shadows, then experience the world brighter than before.

— Yo-Yo Lin

About the contributors

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