It's surprising, at first, to hear Amanda Cachia emphasize she's part of a disabled class. Sure, she's a little person, but by no means does this seem to disable her. She has a brilliant mind, functioning limbs and a discerning pair of eyes when it comes to contemporary art. She's curated more than 30 art exhibitions all around the world, has two master's degrees from prestigious institutions and is finishing her Ph.D. dissertation at UC San Diego. Why would a woman so clearly capable of great things go out of her way to point out she's disabled?
"I'm physically disabled, but it's according to the social model of disability which means that society disables me," says Cachia, who has a rare form of dwarfism called brachyolmia. She is quick to point out there are hundreds of different kinds of dwarfism. "I'm not medically disabled where a doctor would say, 'We have to fix you,' but in the social model where we believe that the world built around us is not built for disabled people...Whether you're blind or deaf, society is not really open to diverse body types and I relate to that a lot because there are things in the world that are inaccessible to me."
Despite her stature and society's limitations, Cachia has made a national name for herself by focusing on disability within the arts. Up until recently, she was the chair of the Dwarf Artists Coalition for Little People of America (she says she left because of the demands of curating and her studies at UCSD) and she's also on the Committee on Diversity Practices, which is part of the College Art Association. She recently organized a discussion at the group's national conference titled "Curating Diversity," and when it comes to showing the work of disabled artists or art that deals in issues of disability, she is very serious about her role as curator.
"I'm often the platform for these artist's talents and I take that role very seriously," Cachia says. "That's a huge responsibility."
She grew up Wollongong, a coastal city in Australia, south of Sydney. After attending the University of Wollongong for graphic design, she worked in Wollongong City Gallery, but knew she wanted more for herself. She moved to London to get her master's in Creative Curating and then to New York City and later to Regina, Saskatchewan, where she started working at the Dunlop Art Gallery.
After she left her family back in Australia, Cachia says she had to "learn how to be dependent on herself. She's never been afraid to ask for what she wants. Cachia tapped big name artists like Kara Walker, Rodney Graham and Ghada Amer to come to Regina. "If you want something, just go up to the front door and ask for it," she says. "If you don't ask for what you want, you'll get run over."
Before moving to San Diego in 2012, Cachia made one more stop in San Francisco in 2010 to get her second master's in Visual & Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. That's where she really developed her interest in artistically exploring disability.
She decided to focus on this more when she moved to San Diego to get her Ph.D. from UCSD in Art History, Theory and Criticism.
Despite all the work that comes with school and writing a dissertation on the "intersection of disability, phenomenology, and contemporary art," Cachia says she still wanted to curate shows. Her first local show in 2014 at Space 4 Art in East Village was a photography show called Composing Dwarfism: Reframing Short Stature in Contemporary Photography. Last year, she did a body-focused show called The Flesh of the World in Toronto, as well as a show at UCSD's gallery@calit2 space that focused on deafness.
For Sweet Gongs Vibrating, which opened at the San Diego Art Institute in March, and will be up through May 28, Cachia took a more indirect look on the larger theme of disability. The multi-artist exhibition focuses on multisensory art that isn't wholly dependent on vision and relies more on sound, touch and even smell.
"While in the past I've had art work that addresses disability, for this one, I wasn't trying to bang people over the head with it," Cachia says. "To be a little more careful with my language, because there's still so much stigma and ghettoization when it comes to the d-word."
Cachia adds that these stigmas are often more about people's fears of "bodies that are different."
"There's so much nervousness and anxiety and fear around different bodies," Cachia says. "You can say that disability is the last bastion of minority groups that haven't achieved full equality. It's getting a lot better, obviously, but I think we're still behind even things like the gay rights movement."
Asked for an example, Cachia says things like dwarf tossing is still considered acceptable, and that it was only recently that New York passed a law that all cabs had to be wheelchair accessible. She addresses these issues by going to speak at universities and conferences where she's not only known for being very open to any questions people want to ask, but also for her own collapsible, custom-made podium that she wheels out on stage and sets up in front of the audience. She'll often joke with audiences about her experiences in public bathrooms where she'll only be able to see a small portion of her body in the mirror.
"I'll say something like, 'Oh, the top of my head looks awesome today,'" says Cachia, adding that it serves as a good icebreaker. "I get a lot of people saying things like, 'Finally, I'm allowed to ask this question." Once they get over that fear of asking questions, they get over that fear of disability."