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Brilliant & Resilient: The pop-up gallery that features portraits of leading disabled women activists from around the world

If you take a walk on West Broadway past Noisette Pastry Kitchen, toward Low Key Music Studio and Wrong Number Floral Company, you’ll run across a storefront where the beaming faces of Ida Puji Astuti, Ganga Rayamajhi and dozens of other disabled women activists from around the globe radiate from behind the windows.

“These are women who have worked to fight against violence against disabled women," said Susan Sygall, co-founder of Mobility International USA (MIUSA), the organization behind the project. "They are working to promote health and medical things so women have the same health care benefits. They're fighting for inclusive education, so disabled women can have education. They're getting into political participation to make changes in the government. I think it's so important because we so rarely see disabled women leaders being celebrated and realizing that they are the ones that are changing the world, not just for disabled women, but for all people.”

The portraits are part of the “Brilliant & Resilient'' pop-up gallery presented by MIUSA and hosted through the city of Eugene’s Windowfront Exhibitions, which transforms vacant storefronts into temporary galleries through May 12, 2024. Coinciding with Lane Arts Council’s First Friday Art Walk, the exhibit’s organizers will kick-off Women’s History Month by opening the space to the public from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 1.

In a narrative that accompanies her portrait, Rayamajhi, who grew up in a mountainous region of Nepal, explains that she lost both of her legs as an infant. As she reached school age, she had to drag herself a long way just to get to class. The experience created in her a desire to create better opportunities for girls and women like her, and she founded an organization that teaches sewing and candle making to help promote independence, and offers loans to help disabled women start small businesses. She calls women like herself and those she serves – who are out of view in very rural communities – “hidden diamonds.”

In her narrative, Astuti, who lives in Indonesia, said her body stopped growing when she was five years old, causing her to be small in stature. She credits support from family and friends with helping her overcome the marginalization disabled women experience in Indonesia in education, health, employment and public access. She holds advanced degrees and is the founder of the advocacy group Indonesia Inclusive Institute (I3), and helps raise awareness in Australia about gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities.

The 30 women celebrated in the exhibit are graduates of MIUSA’s Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD). Every few years, WILD brings women to Eugene for three weeks of intensive training. The participants learn about policy, legislation, health, and self defense. Sygall calls the program an “amazing force” that now has graduates living and working in 89 countries.

The idea for the program began when Sygall, while studying in Australia on a Rotary scholarship, realized disabled people were underrepresented in international exchange programs. So Sygall, who is paraplegic and a proud wheelchair rider, did something about it. Upon her return to Eugene, she and another University of Oregon alumnus, Barbara Williams, co-founded Mobility International USA, a disability-led nonprofit organization to advance global disability rights and leadership.

Sygall will be on hand at Friday’s First Friday Art Walk gallery opening, along with co-contributor Susan Dunn.

“It makes Eugene a better place when we learn from disabled women from around the world, their culture, their stories. I truly believe that people with disabilities and allies, we are all part of one global family. This photo exhibit really celebrates this family of disabled women activists. Having it here in Eugene as part of Art Walk, is a tribute to the type of community we want to be,” Sygall said.

Jill Burke became KLCC's arts reporter in February, 2023.
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