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Sign Language Arts Seminar

Date: 26th november 2022 13.00 – 15.30
Place: Riksteatern, Hallundavägen 30

Moderator: Dr Pia Simper-Allen, Senior lecturer, Department of Linguistics,
Stockholm University

13.00–13.15 Introduction: Why do we need to recognise Sign Language Arts?

Johanna Mesch, Professor, Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University
Mindy Drapsa, Artistic Director, Riksteatern Crea

13.15–13.35 Defining Visual Vernacular in South African Sign Language (SASL): Exploration of how the visual vernacular form is represented in creative SASL
Atiyah Asmal

13.35–13.55 The Radical Opening — Philosophical Notes on Visual Vernacular
Patrik Nordell

13.55–14.15 Why does Visual Vernacular resemble cinematic features?
Mindy Drapsa

14.15–14.35 Coffee break

14.35–14.55 Report of the practical experience of working in the project Sign Language Arts
Giuseppe Giruanna and Debbie Rennie Zacsko

14.55–15.15 A Study of Visual Vernacular (VV)
Cristiano Monteiro

15.15–15.30 Closure

The seminar is free and you can register here


Defining Visual Vernacular in South African Sign Language (SASL): Exploration of how the visual vernacular form is represented in creative SASL

This research explores a unique storytelling style called Visual Vernacular (VV), in creative South African Sign Language (SASL). VV is known as a highly visual, gestural, and cinematic way of telling stories in sign language. However, the exact nature of VV has never been explored in depth. SASL poems and stories have been collection by Morgan& Kaneko (2018) which I used to identify elements of VV in SASL poetry. I first explored the notion of VV to find out more about the extract essence of VV in relation to other closely-related terms such as constructed action, visual narrative, classifiers, cinematic techniques, anthropomorphism and so on.  There are two types of storytelling in sign language: one is to show and the other is to become (Sutton-Spence and Kaneko 2016) which correspond to the notions of ‘genteel’ (more linguistic) and ‘vernacular’ (more theatrical) art forms proposed by Pollitt (2014). Visual Vernacular is key to understand the ‘becoming’ of sign language narrative and to investigate the ‘vernacular’ form of creative sign language which is less researched compared to the ‘genteel’ form.

Atiyah Asmal — Growing up as a Deaf child in a Deaf family, South African Sign Language is Asmal's mother tongue. She works as a Project Manager for Gauteng Department Education where she manages the whole project of Grade 5 hearing learners as SASL and SASL Project. Asmal is a certified assessor as well as a moderator and passed her master’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Radical Opening — Philosophical Notes on Visual Vernacular

Visual Vernacular has some unique features. It is not easy to find an equivalent in other art forms. Firstly, VV has a universal language character that is more or less independent of a country’s sign language. Secondly, VV has several advantages over spoken language poetry. An important reason why VV is complex to explain, understand, and even grasp. The movement of VV has some vulnerabilities that disappear as soon as we start discussing it. But it also has hidden strengths that can be uncovered. What kind of approach should we use when studying VV? I believe that a radical opening is needed. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has opened two ontological contributions, movement, and materialism, to 20th-century and 21st-century philosophy. If there is time left, it is possible to talk about semiotics.

Patrik Nordell — Cultural theorist. Patrik have studied continental philosophy as well aesthetics and have worked with Deaf Studies for many years. Patrik now works as an educational and curriculum developer within gender-based violence prevention.

Why does Visual Vernacular resemble cinematic features?

In this study, I look at the cinematic features that appear in artistic sign language texts, Visual Vernacular from a cognitive description model for sign language (Liddell 2003) as a starting point to increase understanding of the unique structure of Visual Vernacular. The work is then divided into action-based and description-based Visual Vernacular. After that, the results are presented of which real space blend these Visual Vernacular segments contain and what connections with cinematic features look like. By trying to find connections to cinematic features, the results from this study lead to the assumption that there are features that are related to sign language, for example, visual compression that cannot be compared with film. The results show that the number of real space blends in a Visual Vernacular text can amount to 40 blends per minute, which is twice as much in relation to a narrative sign language text. In conclusion, it shows that Visual Vernacular is a unique storytelling art in sign language that has the opportunity to be understood by sign language users from all over the world.

Mindy Drapsa — the first deaf artistic director at Riksteatern Crea, which is one of the world’s largest touring theatres in sign language. Mindy have been involved in film and TV for several years before working in theatre. Mindy´s interest in sign language has been with her since she was a child because of her deaf family who are from countries other than Sweden. Mindy has a master’s degree in sign language from Stockholm University.

Result of the project “Sign Language Arts”

Rennie Zacsko and Giuranna will be presenting the result of the project “Sign Language Arts”. Since February 2021 Rennie Zacsko and Giuranna have been leading a series of webinars discussing the differences between Visual Vernacular and Sign Language Poetry. In November 2021 the first on-site workshop was held at Riksteatern with 16 Sign Language artists from all over the world. Rennie Zacsko and Giuranna will present the result of the project so far.

Giuseppe Giuranna — Italian by birth, currently living in Germany, has been an active actor, director, and workshop leader since the 1980s. Giuseppe has studied the National Body of the Deaf in Palermo and participated in several productions over the years, including the opera Verlorenes Wasser but also Riksteatern Crea’s performance Romeo and Juliet at Gullbacken (2020) which contained Shakespeare texts in Visual Vernacular form. Giuseppe is one of the biggest and foremost pioneers in Visual Vernacular.

Debbie Z. Rennie — one of the world’s leading sign language poets born in the USA. She has extensive experience from the world of poetry and theater both in Sweden and the USA and has been active since the 1970s. For Riksteatern Crea, Debbie has been on stage with the poetry performance SOLO and has also directed several performances. Debbie is in high demand, both as an artist, poet, sign language artist and as a poetry workshop leader.

A Study of Visual Vernacular (VV)

Deaf Culture and Literature from the Perspective of the Aesthetics of Reception.


  1. An overview of Visual Vernacular in the World
  2. Visual Vernacular in Deaf Culture and Literature
  3. Aesthetics of Reception in Dialogue with Visual Vernacular
  4. Literary Analysis of Videos in VV
  5. Studies on the Characterization and Categories of Analysis of the VV Data.

Cristiano Monteiro — Beside having a Master (Language and Teaching), he is a VV artist, Actor, Poet, Consultant, Translator Interpreter IS and Professor of Literature Deaf, SingWriting and Libras of the Letters/Libras course at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), coordinator of a research project on literary productions in Language of Signs, developed by UFPE, as well as the Cultural and Literary Festival in Libras. I am the director of the soiree in Libras Slam das Mãos. Theatre Director Lab. Students in Letters/Libras at UFPE.