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Disabled artists protest The Many Costs of Living

A "collective response" to the disproportionate impact of the rising cost of living on disabled people, a Shape Arts project has brought an artistic billboard campaign to Sheffield and four other cities.

Shape Arts The Many Costs Of Living All Artworks 2023

Shape Arts' The Many Costs Of Living billboard, featuring art by Bella Milroy, Hanecdote, Justin Piccirilli and the Kirkwood Brothers.

This week, a new kind of arts campaign was launched across the country. Led by the national organisation Shape Arts, billboards were revealed in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, displaying four new artworks by disabled artists in response to the cost of living.

“Disabled people are disproportionately impacted by the rising costs of living,” a spokesperson for Shape Arts said. “In a time of spiralling inflation, and the chaos of a crumbling welfare state and national infrastructure, this has turned into an ongoing crisis.

“The Many Costs of Living project is a collective response to this emergency.”

Sheffield has a long history of protest art, from the stylised typefaces of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign to the lino prints which raised money to save Sheffield’s trees. This time, the city was chosen because of its proximity to Chesterfield-based artist Bella Milroy, who created 'It Feels Like This' as part of the project.

Bella Milroy It Feels Like This2023 Shape Arts TMCOL High Res

It Feels Like This

Bella Milroy

“I was really interested in expanding on the nature of the DWP envelope being both covert and overt,” Bella told me. “How it’s obvious to those who understand its meaning, and unnoticed by those who see it as just another bit of post.”

The stress disabled people experience when a brown envelope from the Department for Work and Pensions falls through the letterbox has been well documented online, but Bella’s art takes this reality a step further.

“I liked the idea of playing with scale in this way,” she said. “And how making it massive on a billboard could better reflect the way it arrives, and how much space it takes up, mentally and emotionally.”

Bella’s towering brown envelope shares its place with art by Hanecdote, Justin Piccirilli and the Kirkwood Brothers. The resulting billboard, which in Sheffield is located on Fitzwilliam Street, is a striking reminder of the all-too tenuous support this government has offered to disabled people over the course of the last fraught decade.

Last month, Citizens Advice revealed that over 130,000 households that included a disabled person had their energy disconnected at least once a week due to being unable to keep up with the payments. Meanwhile, NHS waiting lists are at an all-time high and, with disabled households having a far lower income than non-disabled households, many are much less able to absorb the extra costs.

The aim of The Many Costs of Living campaign is to draw attention to the struggles disabled people continue to face and include the wider public as a witness. But for Bella, being able to create alongside other disabled artists was almost as valuable as the work itself.

“I’m always excited when disabled people come together and raise our voices about what the world we live in feels like,” she said. “I hope that people are moved to reflect on how this moment [in time] feels, and [understand] that the voices of disabled people matter to all of us.”

As well as the billboards themselves, Shape Arts has curated an online campaign, with digital animations and an interactive map of the sites for viewers to access. It’s already attracted some famous interest.

“As an ardent advocate for the power of creativity as an antidote, this campaign strikes me as an extraordinary example of the alchemy of art in action,” said the artist Alison Lapper MBE.

“Each artist has confronted the unavoidably dismal outlook we currently face with gentleness, humour and craftmanship typical of their work. As the public encounter the campaign in the wild, the potency of the works will surely have long-lasting and galvanising effects.”

Learn more

The Many Costs of Living campaign runs for two weeks, from 13 to 26 March.

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