November 17th marked the debut of Jamaican artist Astro Saulter's first exhibition at Studio 174 in downtown Kingston. The exhibit, dubbed “Astro: The Morning Star”, was significant not only because it introduced a new artist to the local art scene, but also because the fact that this particular artist was able to have an exhibition at all is amazing. Living with cerebral palsy, Astro lacks control over most of his muscles and creates his work using the EZ Keys software. The method is painstaking, with each drawing taking about a month to complete. While the primary goal of the The Astro Project (the team behind this initiative) was to bring attention to the work of Astro Saulter, it has embraced wider objectives, all related to the need for greater access to arts education, particularly by disabled persons:
the need to develop the capacity for creative expression in disabled persons, thereby increasing a sense of personal identity and pride; the need for more opportunities for creative expression and validation of such expression, thus enhancing self-esteem and providing earnings for their personal use; the benefits of inclusive access to the arts for audiences of all abilities, resulting in increasing the public’s appreciation and enjoyment of the artistic ability of people with disabilities. Every young person with a disability deserves access to high quality arts learning experiences. All artists in schools and art educators should be prepared to include students with disabilities in their instruction. All children, youth, and adults with disabilities should have complete access to cultural facilities and activities. All individuals with disabilities who aspire to careers in the arts should have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills and income-earning capabilities.
Rosie Chung, the director of Studio 174, had intended to use the space for her own work but decided to open it up for use by others in the community. She also pointed out that students from Studio 174 created the striking mural now residing on Knutsford Blvd.
Astro comes from an artistic family. In fact his brothers, filmmakers Storm and Nile Saulter produced a short documentary about him earlier this year:
In his artistic statement, Astro wrote that his artwork served as his primary mode of self-expression:
I have no voice but I am not silent. I use tools beyond my physical body to communicate. Across the years my voice has been expressed mostly through the written word via a computer, and now, in recent years it has become my artwork, more than words, that has satisfied my deep need to connect with people in an authentic way.
He also asked for greater appreciation of artists and their work:
We are all artists in some form or another. I hope that all people will truly appreciate, and understand the love and effort that goes into my work. To my fellow artists, keep reaching for the stars, and remember, if we have a vision and a passion for something that we really want to do, we can meet that challenge, and succeed in our dream if we try hard enough. All artists are beautiful people, and we really can make a difference in the world with our work that has a positive impact on people in so many ways.
Kate Chappell of the Jamaica Journal hopes that Astro's accomplishment will bring attention not only to the challenges facing disabled people but also to their great potential:
It is never easy to go through life with a disability, and Jamaica appears to be an especially challenging place to live. Stereotypes, fear and marginalization prevail. Nowhere accommodates people who use a wheelchair. It is difficult enough for able-bodied people to get around the streets, I can’t imagine what it is like with a wheelchair or other aids. But events like this help to raise awareness and to show people that a disability need not impede one’s goals or dreams. It also illustrates the irrational fears and prejudices towards people with disabilities. It seems as though the message is starting to get out. Let’s hope the growing awareness continues.
Blogger Annie Paul attended the exhibition and was impressed:
Thoroughly enjoyed the opening of Astro’s show at Studio 174 last night…Born with cerebral palsy into the talented Saulter family (brother Storm Saulter is the acclaimed director of the film Better Mus Come and responsible for injecting new life into the filmmaking circuits in Jamaica and the Caribbean), Astro is a poster boy for the cause of creative development and nurturing for everyone no matter the physical challenges they’re saddled with. The artworks he’s produced using a computer and his head to direct digital tools are at once graphically sophisticated and chromatically intense, products of a refreshingly unjaded, ingenuous eye.
Tanya Batson-Savage also found the work to be promising:
Indeed, that is the most important element of the exhibition which showcases inspiring possibilities. Through these 35 digital impressions which touch on the Caribbean landscapes, [make] comments about impressions of physical beauty and even [touch] on Barack Obama, Astro: The Morning Star, shines with possibility.