The challenges of living with chronic illness in today’s societies are hard for many to imagine. Chronic illness comes in many forms, both visible and invisible, yet media coverage and representation is limited.
Panteha Abareshi is a multi-disciplinary creative who uses her art to address conversations about accessibility, health and safety for individuals with disabilities and severe chronic conditions. The 23-year-old LA-based artist from Montreal, who is of Persian and Jamaican descent, was diagnosed with sickle cell and sickle beta zero thalassemia as a child.
Abareshi describes her genetic blood disorder as causing “debilitating pain, and bodily deterioration that both increase with age.” The artist uses her work to express her personal experience of living with a disability in an able-bodied world, while combining her notions of gender, race, and sexuality into her body of work. Abareshi views her life as immersed in “Otherness”, by her definition, and most of her contemporary artwork is aimed at pushing against lack of presentation as a disabled woman of colour.
Abareshi’s work is primarily expressed through installation art, video art and performance art. In an interview with gal-dem magazine, Abareshi discusses her short film, Natural Disaster. “My practice is different because I’m in a different place with my illness where I accept it. I’m using my body as the medium,” the artist explains.
Natural Disaster shows the artist in various uncomfortable, painful contortionistic positions in a wheelchair, dispersed with images of wildfires and other natural disasters. Some of the text that accompanies these images read: “This biological chaos is unrelenting” to further express the artist's emotions. One may perceive Abareshi’s art, including Natural Disaster, as jarring due to its unflinching exploration of pain and discomfort in an imperfect, chaotic physical body. But, as Abareshi explains, when people are scared of experiencing such an illness, society begins to focus on health issues and accessibility, with the benefit of promoting more inclusivity for the people with disabilities.
Gender, race, femininity and motherhood are topics often explored in Abareshi’s practice. Abareshi’s power and skill in the performance and video arts are a continuation and evolution from illustrations and earlier drawings such as Mother's Milk — an illustration that depicts a topless woman of colour with blood around her nipples and a medical device on her chest.
In an interview with Riposte Magazine, Abareshi discusses how femininity is closely related to motherhood, which is viewed under a halo and praised by society. Due to Abareshi’s chronic illness resulting in infertility, she consciously strives to spark a casual conversation surrounding infertility in order to mitigate the shame around the topic.
“There is no space for me talking about not wanting to be a mother,” Abareshi states. “Everyone is being silenced for the sake of upholding this one image.”
Abareshi speaks about growing up in dehumanizing hospital settings and navigating them by forming her own definition of gender abstractly. “Gender is so fundamentally performative. Through my experience of living with chronic illness, I’ve realized that every aspect of identity is highly performative,” she explains.
The concept of the organic versus the inorganic with respect to the human body is another theme explored in Abareshi’s work. In the performance video work, For Parts, in the exhibit “The Future is Loading”, she effectively demonstrates the contrast between organic and inorganic physicality through medical objectification and manipulation through implants and prosthetics. This organic ambiguity is powerfully communicated through the visuals of the artist’s body entangled and enmeshed with medical mobility devices, illustrations of which flash intermittently throughout, and enhanced through the audio track that resembles a heart beat, medical machinery, or both.
Panteha Abareshi is spreading awareness of the difficulties experienced in a disabled body while also addressing the importance of representation for gender and race. Through Abareshi’s body of work, she highlights the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Gender Equality, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and Good Health and Well-Being.
Having a chronic illness myself, I was touched by the openness and honesty of Panteha Abareshi’s work on the taboo subject of living in an imperfect or sick body. To donate to Shape Arts (and programs such as Share Open), a disability-led arts organization that works to improve access to culture for disabled people by providing opportunities for disabled artists visit this link. In Abareshi’s links she provides resources for verified relief funds and charities to help support Ukraine in this time of crisis. The Organizations Abareshi includes are Care.org, Global Giving, rescue.org and Save The Children. To view more of Abareshi’s work you can purchase her artist book titled Panteha Abareshi: I Am Inside the Body.