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The Body Electric: Artists with Developmental Disorders Portray Sexuality

People with disabilities are perceived as asexual by default, but they are not immune to sexual thoughts and desires. Camille Holvoet and Thanh Diep have found a sexual voice in art, using their work to challenge this longstanding public perception.
The Picky Perfect Goddess Camille by Camille Holvoet. All images courtesy of Creativity Explored

One night, I am hiding under my covers crying for no real reason except that implicating an act like sex, steeped in shame and fury, within an expansive and compassionate emotion like love, seems like a dick move on the part of history and biology. My friend is also Facebook Messaging me about her recent breakup--we discuss an unpleasant self-awareness we share: in relationships, we want too much, and maybe are too much.


"Why can't we ever just like, chill for a sec?" she asks.

I don't know, I tell her. I feel like there's an emotional squirrel inside me that just wants to love and be loved, in very specific and convoluted ways.

Later, I'm cooking a chorizo sausage that is bursting out of its casing and thinking about San Francisco-based artist, Camille Holvoet. Holvoet is an artist at Creativity Explored, the legendary Mission gallery and studio space for artists with developmental disorders. I wrote about her art briefly a couple years ago when I was volunteering there. Her self-portraits explore what it's like to desire everything at all times at the loudest volume--she wants to taste the sweetest flavors; feel the sharpest lust. She requires the frankest worship, and in return, bestows you with her enormous kindnesses. Holvoet's drawings are energetic and filled with cravings: fucking, eating sweets, being emotionally connected, wanting to be a mother. Portraits of cross-eyed figures in curiously exposed clothing float in front of a transcript of the orgasming mind. Words run into each other and are chanted in incantations, and new words are born out of necessity and love. I absentmindedly munch on the chorizo and look at more of her work on my phone.

Dick Had Just Got Out From The Mothers Leggs by Camille Holvoet

In a newer series, Holvoet depicts rows of medications to treat those sicknesses for which our current pills are insufficient. "Anti-Wanting Liquid Medcine [sic] for the Body" says one bottle. "Anti-Sex Feel Pills," says another. Holvoet imagines an entire pharmacy to eliminate inconvenient desires. These imagined medicines, like some real ones, transform people who demand too much into manageable entities.


Anti-Sex Feel Pills by Camille Holvoet

Holvoet is one of several artists with developmental disorders who make work about sexuality at Creativity Explored. To get at the essence of the art made there, I will borrow Kevin Killian's words describing a Judith Scott sculpture: "It punches holes in the world that seem to scream out that something vast was here."

Camille Holvoet

LSD was once used as "prosthetic psychotomimetic" in order to approximate psychosis in neurotypical clinicians. This was a novel, if vexed, approach for treatment. Instead of asking the psychotic patient to alter their reality with antipsychotics, this method asked the doctor to alter their own as a way to experience a very imperfect method of empathy. Immersing yourself in the art at Creativity Explored feels like it could serve a similar function, albeit much more accurate.

Going through the bins and flat files every week for 6 months, I felt the dizzying creative diversity generating new channels of thought inside of me. Before I encountered Thanh Diep's work, I hadn't considered how ataxia might result in a distinctive family of markings, or how a young woman with cerebral palsy might take advantage of her perceived lack of muscle control to flirt with cute guys. Diep describes this and other aspects of her sexuality in a 5-minute animated video called "Nature of Pleasure"

Like her drawings, Diep's videos are restrained and haunting. Fragile forms emerge from a watery surface of faces who are very close to each other but don't touch, faces who touch but break apart. When they do kiss, they engulf each other. Over the slow rippling, Diep expresses hope for a partner who will love her as a whole person, and is frank about heartbreak and masturbation. She communicates both an intense sensation of yearning as well as a radical self-acceptance, as idealized images of love and shifting line work overlap with thoughts about the difficulties and joys of being a sexual being in a body.


Thanh Diep

The squirrel inside me connects to that yearning, and also to the experience of having an Asian family reticent about discussing sex. So I reached out to Diep, even though she is no longer with Creativity Explored.

Broadly: You're the youngest and the only woman in a family of five men. In your quilt "Yes, I Do Think About Sex" you talk about a slightly uncomfortable interaction with one of your brothers when he discovered that you think and write about sex. How does your family view your work?
Thanh Diep: My family is still very uncomfortable talking about sex around me. I think they think that it's not an important topic to talk about.

That must be frustrating. Families are kinda like that though. I feel weird thinking that my parents might read this, actually.

You communicate and write through an Augmentative and Alternative Communication device that is similar to the one Stephen Hawking uses. Have you noticed people's attitudes toward the way you communicate change as more and more people now rely on their smartphones to talk to each other?
Not really, I still have to educate people when they first meet me. If they have never interacted with a person who uses an Augmentative and Alternative Communication Device before, they most likely don't know how to communicate with someone like me.

You mention that your married friends with disabilities give you hope for the future. I ask this knowing that it is very context dependent, but do you have any advice for a person dating someone with disabilities? Some things that you think they should be aware of?
Some pieces of advice I would give someone who is dating a person with a disability would be to love them for who they are and don't treat them any differently--treat them the same way that you would like to be treated. Be patient and listen to them. You really can learn from them. If we can communicate with each other, we really can learn how special a person really is.

I know you're not with Creativity Explored any longer. Do you still make art? What role does it play in your life?
I sometime make art at home, but I miss CE2 and I think everyone there. Hopefully, I can return soon.

Ultimately, many of us don't have the opportunity to deeply engage with people with developmental disabilities. The majority of online discourse on disability is medicalized or in the context of activism, and sexuality is discussed largely in relation to violence. It is a rare privilege, then, to be granted access to the private visions and thoughts at the very edges of the human experience. Artists like Holvoet and Diep enrich our understanding of love, sexuality, and what it means to be human with their generous candor, all the while reassuring those of us who seriously cannot "chill for a sec" that there will always be art for that