Rachel Gadsden is a visual and performance artist who has produced solo and collaborative works for over 25 years.
Affected by retinoschisis and a lung condition requiring her to wear a machine that dispenses regular injections, her latest projects include an animation for this year’s Heritage Flame Lighting Ceremony at Stoke Mandeville named Hephaestus and a commission for Parliament’s Speaker’s Art Fund.
Where did the idea for the Hephaestus animation come from?
At London 2012 there was a real drive to remind people that Britain had begun the Paralympic Games, and that they were ‘coming home’. Now, before each Winter or Summer Games, a torch will be lit at Stoke Mandeville, similar to how the Olympic torch is lit in Athens to celebrate the fact that the first games began there, initiated by Sir Ludwig Guttman and his spinal injuries unit.
That link with to Greek history of the Olympics is how the Hephaestus story came about. Bradley Hemmings, director of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, was asked to come up with a visual, universal idea that could link the lighting ceremony of the Olympics, and the lighting of the armillary sphere before all future Paralympic Games.
Can you tell us more about your recent commission for Parliament?
I was commissioned by the Speaker’s Art Fund and was allowed to go into Parliament and choose whichever artworks I wanted as the starting point of the work, deciding in the end to go with the four ‘Saints’ mosaics in the upper chamber. We then held drawing events in Westminster Hall over three consecutive Saturdays, which were attended by 500 people who each produced one or more A4 drawings afterwards and got to have a tour of Parliament afterwards.
After that, I started pulling together the drawings people made to create the paintings, cutting elements out and pasting them onto canvases. I didn’t alter the drawings, but did embellish them with paint to make them form part of a unified composition.
In what ways has your approach to visual art changed over time?
Throughout my career, my work has mainly dealt with fragility, survival and hope. I’d say the big change that’s happened in the last five years is the international nature of my work. I’m now reaching out to much broader audiences, looking at global fragility rather as opposed to just UK fragility, and how we fit together on global terms.
Which works of yours are you most proud of?
My Olympic commission. Unlimited Global Alchemy. It was a collaboration with the six members of the Bambanani Group of Khayelitsha Township in South Africa, who are kept alive by antiretroviral drugs and have been close to death many times. That I’m also kept alive by drugs, and how medical interventions should be available for everyone in the world but aren’t, that was the underlying motivation behind it. The project was about HIV and AIDS, but also a wider look at the medical support you need if you are particularly fragile.