Dolly Sen

In late April, writes Sarah Pickthall, I had the chance to tap into the brilliant mind of Dolly Sen to see where her Sync thinking was, in this, the time of COVID-19. I found Dolly to still be the subverter, albeit softer, calmer, more contained and in isolation by the sea, waiting for the right moment.

shows a portrait photo of a woman looking at the camera, her arms folded in front of her.
Dolly Sen by the sea in 2020

In a bid to draw together contemporary disabled and Deaf Sync alumni leadership perspectives for a refresh of Sync Leadership online in May 2020, Dolly Sen was an obvious choice.

Having interviewed Dolly several years ago when she was part of Sync Leadership in the UK, I was curious to see how this artist, activist and curator, performer and filmmaker was using subversion to chart her particular approach to life and her practice. I wanted to know what, if anything, had shifted and changed in how she was making work and fighting for what is right.

She has certainly focused more exclusively on her art practice more recently curating a group show at Bethlem Gallery.

Our conversation started with a fond reference to Homer Simpson, an underrated philosopher in her mind, who, taking his daughter Lisa’s reference to the word crisis, in Chinese characters blending ‘danger-opportunity’ (危機) coined the indelible phrase, ‘Crisistunity’. The current pandemic challenge is potentially brutal and yet provides a very clear crisistunity for Dolly. “People at last are seeing and experiencing the cannibalised health and social care system, the decimation of benefits,” she shared.

The need to strike whilst this particular iron of COVID-19 is hot feels pressing. “I can reach more people, who have seen it with their own eyes, not just in the abstract. Normal is what was wrong in the first place. I am beginning to see how I can use this really harsh time to change things for the better.”

shows a smiling woman in a white medical coat holding a yellow colored card in her left hand
Dolly at the Wellcome Collection, 2020

She reminded me that she’s never had a particular strategy or approach, rather using the power of intention and waiting for the right time for her ideas to emerge.

Submerged as we are in a glut of resilience noise online, posting across social media is where we see her ideas and artwork more consistently now compared with when we first met. 

Since the start of the pandemic, she’s been releasing light-hearted useless hints and tips for lockdown to this effect. “If you laugh at something, it loses it’s dark power.” Her output is hosted in a blog on the long-established Disability Arts Online website.

The arrival of Scamp the family dog has additionally provided a great way to connect differently with new audiences. We’ve always loved Dolly for her enduring love of all things sheep in her work and everyday; but upping her social media output with Scamp in tow, she has been approached by people using him as a conversation starter and first step to securing major commissions, though some of these, like many things, are now on hold. 

Dolly shared that she was feeling surprisingly calm and grounded in the face of the enormity of COVID-19 and the inevitable loss we are experiencing, and yet to experience. We spoke about how this may be informed by a life of surviving serious discrimination and changing mental health. Had that experience possibly made her more realistic, and grounded, in the face of extreme events?

A picture of a red plastic charity tin saying 'Help the Normals' and 2 boxes of Dignity pills that say "Dignity cannot be taken 4 times a day" The credit in the photo says Dolly' Sen's '"Dignity" is shown (Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection).
Dolly Sen’s “Dignity” features a prescription pill box that proclaims “Dignity cannot be taken 4 times a day”. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

For me, as co-creator of Sync, this illustrates how important our lived experiences of resilience in the light of disaster are. It also shines a light on the need for leadership as we emerge from the pandemic as a society and this is what these Sync think-pieces will tap into. For many of us, a lifetime of restrictive and radical events has required us to be grounded in the face of adversity. The question we have now is how best to place and position the strength of disabled leadership, whilst so many of us will be in lock down for longer.


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