Evidence of Payment.
An Exhibition of Postage Stamps
Bounce Art Festival at Arts & Disability Forum, Belfast.
Evidence of Payment
Postage stamp artwork from the collection of Dr Paul Darke
29 August to 3rd October 2014
Stamps, postage stamps, are so much more than just ‘evidence of payment’; they are statements of a nation’s evidence of itself, for consumption not just by its own citizens but globally.
Given that the entire world issues stamps, it is safe to say that all nations are giving their own evidence of how they see themselves - for a price that is. The stamps in this exhibition are not postal history but a thematic collection indicating a cultural history of disability, or rather of ‘impairment’. Postage stamp imagery forces the viewer to combine ideas that are not usually together. Country and disability are viewed through the prism of your own understanding of that image and that country. This is combined with your own society’s representations and your philatelic experiences – your experience of stamps. This experience is often greater than we presume to have.
As an artist and a philatelist, I am not as interested in ‘postal history’ as most collectors are; I am interested in the cultural and artistic interrelation between the idea of disability and philately and its cultural significance. Nothing exists in isolation; all cultural production - creative or otherwise - is premised on the past and the present and on hopes of a future. As such, the cultural value of disabled people is forever in transition. Stamps give a highly visual record of the reality, the changes and of the hopes of the future in individual nations globally.
What has always interested me is the transition in representation and its difference from reality - real and perceived reality - and what the ‘representation’ is trying to get us to infer.
Another issue to consider is whether or not such imagery is for an audience that is internal or external to the country issuing a stamp. The reality is that philately is an expensive hobby and largely, though not exclusively, undertaken by affluent, western societies. Thus, it is safe to assume that many stamps are not only for internal postal system usage but for a global community of affluent collectors. In fact, many countries issue stamps that, although available internally for actual postage use, are largely created and sold to the global philatelic community. This is not just the case in faraway countries but also in our own postal services, with the demand for ever increasing profits extending beyond just mere traditional postal services. If one presumes this to be the case, any country selling stamps is selling an image to the world of itself.
The range of stamps - in time and geographic mix - is typical of the many thousands of representations of disability/impairment on postage stamps. It is interesting to note how the pure charity depiction of the disabled person as a personal tragedy is the predominant version of disability, as in most modern cultures past and present, with disability seen as impairment. Thus, the charity image, along with the image of charity, seems to be the most durable and continuing interpretation of disability. Often the two go hand in hand; for example, the dominance in third world countries – and increasingly in developing nations – of western charities’ activities within such countries: so we see Red Cross, Lions, Rotary and UN organisations, as well as numerous medical charities. Consequently, such stamps are selling not just the country, and not just the image it has of its own disabled people, but also the deeds of the first world charity. All this in a small but beautiful single piece of paper that rarely exceeds10 cm in size and that will undoubtedly be ignored and thrown away.
The changing face of disabled people is a fascinating indication of the cultural hegemony of a nation’s attitude to normality and abnormality and the responsibility it takes for its own politics of disability. It is interesting to note how many third world countries are tied in to Western charity organisations ‘working with the disabled’ in those countries; a perspective that seems at odds with self-determination but one which brings in much foreign aid.
Most countries have the noble warrior in their catalogues of disability representation - a mix of symbolic values from hero to object of charity. Stamps of disability are so common that, squarely rooted in the charity model imagery, they often depict issues at the heart of the social model – the construction of disability as a politically excluded group due to alterable social conditions such as architecture. Thus, one may see a stamp and think it is a social model representation of disability but is coming from a highly medicalised charity model of disability attempting to move away from its usual portrayal of disability as pitiable and pathetic. The pitying approach is increasingly reserved for the extremes of impairment now, globally, but it is still firmly rooted in a charity model.
It is also worth noting how individual impairments dominate – because of their visual power and social worth - philatelic culture. For example, the wheelchair is a key image, both as an object being used and as the ‘symbol’ of disability for obvious reasons; despite the reality that it is an object used by only a small proportion of disabled people. One also needs to consider the dominance of impairments such as deafness and blindness; visual impairment being particular favourite, especially given its link to Louis Braille. Many a commemorative stamp has been issued to the man himself depicting Braille without actually having any Braille imprints on the stamp. Yet Braille, which could easily be incorporated into postal products, is still relatively rare in almost all countries.
The cult of the individual hero of disability, either the disabled person themselves or someone working for them, is a never-ending source of disability imagery on the postal stamp. Louis Braille, Helen Keller, Van Gogh, Beethoven, and Roosevelt for example all further implicate disability or impairment as something to be overcome rather than accepted as ordinary.
In Western, affluent, capitalist societies in particular, it is interesting to see how the ‘Paralympian’ and the accessible environment has been constructed as symbol of the new world order of what ‘disability’ is; an order that individualises impairment and, as such, disability; that ignores the complexity of disability and the way multiple social factors affect disability – politics, economics and social capital to name but three.
Consequently, modern or post-modern philatelic representations of disability (impairment) are being placed increasingly within the individualistic form; a reality that applies to the few and ignores the reality that disabled people (including the few it seemingly does apply to) are subject to social marginalisation, exclusion and poverty along with unemployment, charitable dependency, bad housing or institutionalisation. Thus, this ‘new’ imagery is no truer than any that have existed in the past. One could argue that the former prevalent image of disability as objects of charity was - as a social reality - much closer to a true depiction of disability / impairment than any Paralympian or socially active individual l disabled person in contemporary society who may be able to use an accessible tram.
Stamps – these stamps – are beautiful in their imagery; in their construction as art works of real value (evidence of payment). Some are very amusing; their stylised depictions of disabled people positioned or carrying out some bizarre task, are so ‘artistic’ that it makes them a joy to behold and a pleasure to witness. No other art works are so cheap, so mass-produced, so as to be possible to collect and yet to be missed as they travel the globe. Next time you get a letter, look at the beauty of the stamp.
Paul Darke, August 2014
‘Evidence of Payment’ exhibited as part of Bounce! Arts Festival 2014 Ground Floor, Cathedral Quarter Workspaces, 109-113 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1FF