Spending the night in a hotel might sound like a relaxing treat to most but for people with a disability, it can be an isolating, humiliating and uncomfortable experience that they’d rather avoid.
One person who knows this all too well is De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) Fine Art graduate Christopher Samuel who, as a wheelchair user, has had his fair share of staying in places that are unfit for his needs.
To highlight the barriers that disabled people face, Christopher’s latest artwork is a conceptual piece; a hotel room designed to be deliberately awkward, difficult and inaccessible.
Ironically named the Welcome Inn, he was commissioned to create the room at the Art B&B in Blackpool by Unlimited, a programme that supports creative projects by disabled artists.
It features an abnormally high bed that is difficult to get in and out of; a bathroom door that doesn’t shut so it gets in the way when you reach for the toilet roll; and curtains that don’t close properly so light floods the room at all hours.
Everything is designed to leave guests feeling frustrated at the simplest of tasks, like using the bedside lights or watching television. There’s even an inverted soap dispenser.
“I wanted it to be slightly theatrical and humorous to get people’s attention,” explained Christopher. “On the first night that guests stay they think it’s funny but by the second or third night they realise it’s actually very annoying and inconvenient. That’s when the novelty wears off.”
Christopher was inspired to create the Welcome Inn following his personal experience when, in 2017 after graduating with First Class Honours in Fine Art at DMU, he was forced to take up emergency accommodation in an unsuitable hotel room.
“I was technically made homeless because two councils couldn’t agree on the costs of my care and access needs,” he said. “It took three months for them to decide where I should live.”
During that time Christopher lived in a hotel room that was so tight he couldn’t move around without opening and closing doors behind him. He had to sleep in his wheelchair because he couldn’t use the bed and the toilet was not accessible so he had to use a bucket.
“I had to fight to live independently,” he said. “The councils wanted to put me in a care home. I had to get a disability rights specialist to decipher what my rights were.
“For me my art is about raising awareness and speaking up for disabled people who do not really have a voice. I spoke with people with a range of different disabilities to come up with the concepts for the Welcome Inn and researched hotels that cater for the disabled.
“I wanted to demonstrate how each person’s experience of disability is different and give people who don’t have accessibility issues a chance to relate to those who do. The work has many layers to it, relating to structural discrimination, a housing crisis happening right now, austerity and how that affects the most vulnerable.”
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Christopher has a condition called Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease (CMT), which causes damage to the peripheral nerves found outside the main central nervous system that control the muscles and relay sensory information to the brain.
“I’ve always had CMT but it’s got worse as I’ve got older,” he said. “I used to be able to run, swim and ride a bike, so it’s been hard to deal with – going from an independent person to someone who is reliant on a wheelchair.”
Christopher decided to study Fine Art at DMU in 2015, after completing a Foundation Art Design course at Hereward College in Coventry.
“My identity had changed so much over the years because of my condition and I knew I wanted to do something different,” he said. “Before college I’d never drawn, painted or created anything in my life but I’d always been secretly interested in art.
“When applying to university I knew I needed to go somewhere where I felt safe and accepted. DMU was accessible and welcoming and the lecturers and technicians gave me confidence. I really developed my artistic voice during my time there.”
Today, Christopher is an artist with his own professional studio in Leicester’s cultural quarter. He describes his work as ‘autobiographical’ and says his art is rooted in identity politics.
Next month he has been invited to give a guest talk about his work and what it is like to be a disabled artist at the VAE in North Carolina – a cultural arts hub that aims to help artists to advance their careers. This is happening with the support of the VAE and also Attenborough Arts Centre at the University of Leicester, which champions emerging talent and disability-led artists.
“I’m really happy that my work is being recognised and I am now a validated artist,” he said. “Having said that, my biggest achievement so far is my mum seeing me graduate.
“I’m the only person in my family who has graduated and I come from a working-class family, so to have overcome the things I have to get to where I am makes me proud.”
Christopher is one of 19 artists who has designed a room for the Art B&B in Blackpool, which is now open to the public. For more information or to book a stay, visit: www.artbb.org
Details about Christopher and his work are available here: www.christophersamuel.co.uk
Posted on Thursday 9th January 2020