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Editorial Disclosure: A disclaimer from artist Amy Cohen Efron on why some of the artist’s quotes featured in this article will not always follow the principles of standard written English: “English is my second language, and my natural language is American Sign Language.”

The Mammal Gallery has been working on developing an inclusive arts scene in South Downtown for years, but there is a group that they — and the Atlanta arts scene in general — has often overlooked. Merle, a booker at Mammal, and a handful of artists from around the South, will take steps to rectify this by hosting a first-of-its-kind art experience in Atlanta on July 14 — a Deaf event. The upstairs gallery space will feature four Deaf artists — Annie Rai, Alexis Borochoff, Amy Efron and Elizabeth Mayton — displaying pieces in different visual mediums. The expansive ground floor gallery space will host an open mic ASL (American Sign Language) “Jam” poetry session, musicians and a DJ closing it out with a dance party. For artist Amy Efron, the goal is to show that Deaf artists are a “vibrant, independent, fierce, creative, and strong linguistic and cultural community.”

Two of Merle’s cousins are practicing Deaf artists. “One of them is a photographer, and he got me into the arts,” says Merle, who didn’t personally know any Deaf artists in Atlanta. Social media and the online calendar ePeachy helped her find a sense of community, one that she hopes to share. “Through the powers of Facebook and online research, I found Alexis Borochoff,” she says, and their shared enthusiasm helped the show grow quickly.

Borochoff, a Florida transplant, quickly introduced Merle to several other Deaf artists. Borochoff, who paints commissions of animals in human clothes — “people’s pets with themes like Storm Troopers, Victorian outfits, etc.” — will be displaying work that she came up with on her own. Animals are close to her heart, and when asked about one of her favorite things, she mentions “cuddle fest with my cat Dave.” Borochoff’s goal? That “this event will create a stronger deaf community to encourage their creativity and prove that deaf people are just as talented.”

Each of the participating visual artists echoed a similar sentiment. For Annie Rai, it will show “people that Deaf artists, too, are talented artists.” Efron, who also teaches a class on Deaf history and culture at GSU, believes “that my artwork will raise much awareness that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people do exist and we are a very much part of the Atlanta community!”   

Efron, a self-described “De’ARTivist (Deaf Artivist),” explains that her art “is about my own Deaf experience — how I view the society, and how the society views me.” Her pieces are striking, visually explosive and abstract. Efron’s writing at Deaf World as Eye See It also speaks to these themes and serves as a thought-provoking primer into the world of the Deaf art community. Both work to change the concept thatoften times the society view us as disabled, and dependent for help.”

Merle’s cousins have shared that “Deaf culture, being Deaf, is something [they] wouldn’t change for anything. . . .  They can experience things differently than I can and that’s a really beautiful experience in the world.” Unfortunately, Deaf culture is not often exhibited in the mainstream. Rai, whose family went through a cross-continental search for a great Deaf school, remembers the first time she saw a Deaf artist celebrated on television. At the 1987 Oscars, “Marlee Matlin won a best actress role for a movie, Children of a Lesser God. She walked up to the stage and thanked [the] audience in sign language. It blew me away.”

Annie Rai. (Image courtesy the artist.)

Rai, who began painting at five years old, keeps a feeling of youthful whimsy in her current work. There’s a sketch of Humpty Dumpty skipping on the Great Wall of China, and her portraits of felines capture the personality that cats seem to exude. Her personal and creative style shows the influence of two of her art heroes, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali. “Frida . . . use her struggling with her health issues to express on painting thru her ordeal that’s so unique. Next, comes to my mind is one of my favorite subjects, Crucifixion by Salvador Dali; his artistic imaginations fascinates me.”

The artist who caught Rai’s attention all those years ago, Marlee Matlin, describes communicating in Sign Language as “an advantage that deaf people enjoy. It’s a language that combines several elements at once with a simple hand movement and facial expression: meaning, effect, time and duration. It’s just so beautiful that printed or spoken words can’t begin to describe it” — a beauty that will be on full display during the open mic portion hosted by Angelo Butler.

Merle’s experiences as an audience member at Butler’s monthly ASL open mic nights at Manuel’s Tavern cemented the idea that to do the event right she needed to ask the community, “What do you need? Help me plan this.” She wondered why there aren’t more events like this and realized, “that our whole culture does not create space to make places accessible to Deaf people.”

Merle explains that the open mic portion will be “the only event that only uses ASL,” but anyone can experience it.  “You can be deaf, a teacher, learning ASL, or someone like me who has very little experience, or not know it at all” and still be an active part of the audience. Not only this segment but the whole event in some ways, as Borochoff explains, is for “the hearing people who don’t sign . . .  [to] get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Deaf person in a hearing world. Like a reverse experiment.”

After the event on July 14 pushes your boundaries through art, song and poetry, it comes to a close with the universal language of dance — helped by a bass heavy DJ set from Ay-Oh. Heightened Senses is designed to help the audience feel what Efron describes as one of her favorite things to do — “challenge, question, educate, and share ideas every single day.” It’s a step in the right direction as Atlanta’s artistic class works to fully represent their whole community.

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