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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

If it’s a “culture” then we should have clothing and jewellery

Well, it looks like I’ve just ruined a perfectly good and brand new jacket with more of my protest-y nonsense (for the record, I scoured my local charity shops first, but I couldn't find anything that would work for what I had in mind).

I guess I’m angry at the Prime Minister’s systematic targeting of the most vulnerable minorities in society in order to win populist appeal (which, if the latest local elections are any indication, he is failing) at the ballot box. It’s not that I wasn’t angry when Rishi Sunak started his “Stop the Boats” rhetorical nonsense and concocted his barbaric and inhumane Rwanda deportation plan – I was actually working on a campaign against the policy for an NGO, at the time - but we had to take a more sincere / formal approach. I was also appalled by his immature jibes at the Trans community – even Theresa May didn’t stoop that low. But this time, the targeting of the disabled community (and especially the mentally ill) in his recent “sick note culture” speech announcing plans to overhaul the benefits system, feels personal. Because I have been that person who is too mentally unwell to study or work and it's a desperate place to be - it's not a choice and it's not a "culture".


I recently subtitled an audio recording of a writing commission, for the arts charity I work for, titled, Welcome to the club’ On disability, poverty and exclusion in the arts by artist, Tina Rogers. I was very moved by the passion with which Tina spoke about the injustices she has faced. She described how ‘The benefits system itself is black and white with no grey areas, you either work, or you are ‘too ill/disabled’ to work, and the process of obtaining these benefits, particularly PIP (Personal Independence Payment) is nothing short of torture.


And instead of making the system less torturous to help support some of the most vulnerable people in society, the Conservatives plan is to tackle the unprecedented rise in inactivity due to long term sickness’ by overhauling the ‘fit note system’ to force sick people to continue working against their doctor’s expert opinion. I guess we already knew that the Tories have ‘had enough of experts’ (thank you for that gem of wisdom, Michael Gove).


I stumbled across a poem by a young poet called Zoe Cawley, which has more than 1 million views on Tiktok;


‘Dear Rishi,

There are thousands out there who are dying,

But you are saying that we are not trying,

Even when every day we live a life in pain,

And instead of providing help and support you are providing blame,

You are confirming our self-beliefs,

Do you not think our heads give us enough grief?

We act in the certain ways that we do to get a sense of relief,

Because you’re not helping us,

You tell us to go on a walk,

You shut us down when we try to talk,

Even when it takes so much courage to be able to stand there and speak,

You label us as weak,

You say well we all get times when life can get bleak,

But there’s a difference between mental health and mental illness,

If this was physical would you have the same reaction?

Oh wait, yeah you probably would,

But we can’t get the same health care and treatment that you could,

You have a great sense of power destroying the lives of those,

Who don’t think they can make it through the next hour,

The control will get into your head,

Whilst you could be doing so much good instead…

Are you going to try to understand?

Because there’s so many vulnerable lives in your hand,

You may be fortunate to not know it yourself,

But do not invalidate and cause more suffering,

For us who do suffer with our mental health…’


I think she makes a really important point through this poem about power being his primary motivation for this systematic targeting of vulnerable minorities - it's his electoral strategy. The cruelty of his targeted attacks on the weakest members of our society is totally illogical and financially unsound and serves no purpose other than trying to control through coercion. It’s a desperate and inhumane attempt at maintaining power. It’s despicable.


I can’t express in words how this latest round of rhetoricic and weaponised cruelty has made me feel – so let’s art about it instead:


My first response was to make another textiles piece – but it didn’t turn out quite as effectively as I had hoped. Whilst I was making it, I had an idea for a more subversive and satirical response, focussing specifically on the idea of the mentally ill becoming a “culture” – questioning who is responsible for this “cultural trend”. I decided to create a jacket embodying the idea of a “sick-note” counter-culture to emphasise how ludicrous and demeaning Sunak’s words are…


I wanted the jacket to have a “punk” aesthetic, so denim made sense - and white denim, so that the text would be more visible. I ordered a box of multi-coloured fabric paints and a white denim jacket and got to work. I tested the paints out first, as I wasn’t sure whether to write directly from the nozzle of the bottle, or use a very fine brush – the brush looked better. I should maybe have experimented with different font styles – as in hindsight, aggressive capitals might have been more impactful. I chose 8 colours out of the 24 to work from, transitioning in a rainbow sequence for the words “sick note” as well as black for “culture”.

It took a long time to write the words out repeatedly and I smudged the paint a couple of times. It reminded me of “writing lines” in detention at school – which felt apt, as Rishi Sunak is attempting to “punish” the mentally unwell. I decided on the back, to create a 3D element that resembled a sheet of paper from a note pad. I used a pale yellow felt, punching a row of holes out of the top with a hole-punch and then sewed rows of light grey stitches. Over the top I wrote in black;

‘Dear Boss,

I’m sorry I can’t come into work today – the Tories have made me depressed.


The ridiculousness of the whole piece made me laugh a lot whilst I was making it. I stitched the “sick note” in place, on the back of the jacket, with red crosses.


There is something joyful and celebratory about this piece (is it a sculpture or a costume?) - after all, joy is one of the most potent acts of defiance in the face of oppression. They say "fight fire with fire" but that all seems rather violent - my preference if to fight fire with water - and cruelty with joy.

I then decided to make some pill-shaped beads out of polymer clay – to make a necklace and bracelet and to stick on to the jackets buttons. If I am honest, I am not sure the buttons worked – the bright colours kind of distract from the lettering – so, I may take them off.

Sometimes I wonder if I've gone "too far" with my expression of political beliefs. But then I remember the Tories crossed the line a long time ago and have cantinued on their dogmatic march into Fascism. They have no filter, so why should I?


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