National Museum of Health and Medicine TBI arts exhibit sparks some controversy, but maybe just for me

Listen to this post: 

I’ll start saying I have not heard one lick of controversy about artist and TBI survivor Eliette Markhbein or about her arts exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine called “WHACK’ed … and then everything was different.” Her art is really pretty, and her unique process is very intriguing. Here’s the concept behind the art, which I like very much. This description is from the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s article on her exhibit posted on March 11, 2013 at under News & Events.

“Markhbein’s unique technique is a silent testimony to the three phases of TBI: fractured, reassembled and whole. Using cropped photographs, Markhbein first draws the portrait in charcoal on paper. She then imperfectly cuts the drawing into squares and reassembles them as portraits on painted canvas. The uneven-grid effect that results from the drawing/cutting/collage technique illustrates how TBI disrupts sensory and perceptual processes. The grid also acts as a metaphor for the support and structure that TBI survivors require to live an active and rewarding life.” I love it!

But here’s where I, as someone who uses the arts for advocacy and disability justice, feel a tug of controversy. The artist explains, “I wanted to show examples of brain injury survivors who moved on to have full, productive lives. I hope the portraits offer inspiration to those recently injured: kinship and identity with such icons is a powerful emotion, encompassing pride, pleasure and self-compassion, all of which are in short supply during the rehabilitation process.” The icons she refers to are famous people including George Clooney, Gabrielle Giffords, and Keith Richards. There are people who aren’t celebrities or major public figures on their own but who appeared a lot in the news because of the stories around their brain injuries.

So where’s the controversy, Cheryl? Using the arts to inspire kinship, pride, and self-compassion are glorious things. I guess I’m really uncomfortable because if we glorify the people who have “moved on to have full, productive lives” that means we are blaming the ones who didn’t for their own lack of success or at least not showing an interest in what they’re up to now and what societal obstacles are holding them back. It’s subtle. I expect many people will feel defensive when they read what I wrote here and will say that isn’t at all what she means. Of course it isn’t what she means. Yet she is reinforcing a set of tried and true values in our country: pull yourself up by your bootstraps independently. If you can’t, then that’s your shortcoming/weakness/character flaw/fault.

Most of the people who come to support groups at BIRRDsong, where I go, do not have the money or insurance coverage to get the medical care Gabrielle Giffords did or have the indescribably huge support that her husband has shown her since day one. I love how public Senator Giffords is about her experiences. That opens up a ton of dialogue on brain injury and increases the public’s acceptance of it and of us.

But I think it is unjust to only show images of people who have moved on or who have positive attitudes. The reality of brain injury is that some people cannot move on and become productive by American standards because they do not have access to the resources to get them there (like supportive family, affordable rehabilitation, access to transportation, a safe place to live, stable mental health, and the ability to fill out their own Social Security Disability Insurance or job application forms). If we only praise a select few celebrities we aspire to be like, we are sending a hidden message to the rest of the community that they are not worth looking up to and don’t have something of value to share. And that is where we are guilty of discrimination. And that means we are part of the societal obstacles that hold many folks back.

We have to stop praising only the ones with positive attitudes, the ability to overcome all challenges, and the money to get enough rehab and support. If we are truly peers with one another, then let us treat each other as peers with respect. And when we see someone with a negative attitude, let’s not judge. There is a reason behind it, and people deserve the chance to share what they feel is holding them back. I don’t even use the term “negative.” I just call it realistic.

Let’s move from brain injury awareness and a list of famous people we should be aware of, most, if not all of whom in this exhibit are white. Let’s head toward brain injury acceptance in all its injustices, struggles, triumphs, difficulties, and new opportunities.