Zeinab, playing the oboe. Bahia Shehab, “The Sound of Light and Hope” (photo by the artist, and all photos courtesy of Project Light)

LONDON — In the late twentieth century, the field of art history expanded into that of “visual culture,” in order to take account of the social, political and economic conditions in which art objects are created. Though these issues are certainly worthy of attention and study, the term “visual culture” itself contains a problematic assumption: that art can only be experienced through sight. It is this assumption that a recent ten-day exhibition, Shared Vision, in London, organized by the social enterprise Project Light, attempted to challenge.

The small exhibition brought together newly commissioned works by artists who are sighted, partially sighted, or blind. All of the fourteen artists were asked to respond to the phrase “shared vision,” the double meaning of which is drawn out in a quote by the famous blind humanitarian, Helen Keller: “Worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” The works, which range from a “calligraffiti” painting by the “Tunisian Banksy,” eL Seed, to a video about an Egyptian orchestra for blind female musicians by the Islamic art historian, Bahia Shehab, explore experiences of art outside of the purely visual.

Sarah Sandman, “Touching Shadows” (photo by FineActs)

American artist Sarah Sandman’s enchanting work, “Touching Shadows,” engages with both sight and touch. Inspired by the childhood game of shadow puppets, the work consists of a cast of the artist’s hands and its dog-shaped “shadow” on the wall. Both elements, made of plaster and suede respectively, can be touched by the visitor, who becomes a physical link between the two to replace their non-existent light connection. With its imaginary source of light, the work is a clever play on the themes of fantasy and illusion.

Non-optical vision is also explored in the series of eight text-based works which make up “Imaginary Visions.” The works, which are simply titled with numbers, are presented in text, audio, braille, and online recordings, so that sighted and unsighted people are equally able to experience them. A stand-out work is a rhythmic poem by British-Jamaican writer Karen McCarthy Woolf, whose experiments with typography and punctuation are both visual and aural.

You are
A speaker stack. Black.//                        Emits a
Bathro/om-lig/ht-on-string /ECH-O/CLICK/whit/e plas/tic square/roun/d
bre/ast-shaped, litt/le-flick-[nipple]sw/itch/

Her recital of the poem, with its glottal stops, audible sighs, and modulations in tone and speed, is a thoroughly visceral experience.

Sammy Baloji, “View” (photo by the artist)

The topic of blindness is more directly confronted in other works in the exhibition. One of the most captivating works in the exhibition is Congolese photographer Sammy Baloji’s “View,” a series of seven photographs of people who have just emerged from cataract removal surgery in a Senegalese hospital. His subjects all sit in the same chair in front of a white-tiled wall. Some pensively gaze off at an angle. Others defiantly stare back at the viewer. They are dressed in vibrantly-colored clothes: bright blue coats and deep orange shawls. The curators have elegantly arranged the photographs in a sequence so that their subjects’ clothes form a rainbow of colors.

Georges Senga, “Pride” (photo by the artist)

The photographer, Baloji, says that the regaining of sight is also the regaining of dignity. This sentiment is also conveyed in a series of photographs, entitled “Pride,” by another Congolese artist, Georges Senga. The eight photographs focus on the life of a man, Kidiwa, before and after he underwent sight-restoring surgery. The father of seven lost his sight in 2013, and lived for a decade without a job, in abject poverty. Though it is only his eyes that are affected by the surgery, it is his whole body that has transformed. In the photographs before his surgery, he looks like a defeated man, almost apologetic for his own existence. In the ones after, he stands tall and proud.

Georges Senga, “Pride” (photo by the artist)

Rachel Gadsden’s work “Lost at Sea” engages with “vision” in its more metaphorical meaning — as aspiration and determination. The partially-sighted artist often explores the themes of fragility and resilience in her performative and collaborative practice. Her striking piece, “Lost at Sea,” was created in collaboration with a family of Syrian refugees (a mother and three children), who settled in Berlin after narrowly surviving their trip across the Mediterranean Sea, during which their boat capsized. The artist asked the family to lie down on a canvas so that she could trace their bodies. Then they all painted the canvas in a mixture of bright colors, with each figure in a different shade, like in Baloji’s photographs. The act of tracing bodies recalls the trope of chalk outlines at a crime scene, with the family’s bodies imagined as both living and dead. There is also the connotation of birth (each person is individually curled up in the fetal position and together in an overlapping embrace) so that the canvas itself becomes a kind of large womb.

Rachel Gadsden, “Lost at Sea Detail” (photo by the artist)

The exhibition has a strong activist dimension. The statistics about blindness, quoted in the wall text, are fairly staggering. 36 million people worldwide are blind. Every five seconds someone in the world goes blind; every minute a child goes blind. 90% of blind people live in developing countries. 75% could be easily and cheaply cured — with cataract surgery, glasses, or antibiotics. “Most people who are avoidably blind, die blind,” the wall text tells us, “It is time we stop this.” The poignant and poetic works in Shared Vision compellingly prove the urgency of this statement.

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Shared Vision was organized by Project Light and took place at the Old Truman Brewery, London (Shop 7, Dray Walk, 91 Brick Lane, E1 6QL, London, UK) from September 28 to 7 October 2018.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...

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