The Singapore International Foundation (SIF) is a non-profit organisation established in 1991 that aims to strengthen mutual understanding, ties and trust between Singaporeans and international communities. Through its various programmes, the SIF brings them together to connect and collaborate to effect positive social change.
In particular, the SIF’s Cultural Exchange programmes have grown a global alumni network of more than 550 artists from more than 60 countries over the years. The Arts for Good (A4G) Projects is one such initiative that brings together Singaporean artists and like-minded collaborators overseas to create arts-based initiatives which have social impact. The SIF is looking out for new proposals for its 2023 programme.
One of the 2022 recipients of the SIF’s A4G Project funding, and 2016 Young Artist Award recipient, is Alecia Neo. Her socially engaged artistic practice is familiar to many of us. Her long-term projects are often collaborative in nature and address modes of radical hospitality, caregiving and wellbeing, primarily through photography, video and participatory artworks. One of several collaborative projects and platforms Alecia has established is Unseen Art Initiatives, a Singapore-based platform for professional and emerging visually-impaired artists.
We talk to Alecia and her collaborators about the Edible Art Club, the latest SIF A4G Project, established between Unseen Art Initiatives and Aung Mental Health Initiative (Myanmar).
Alecia, how did Unseen Art Initiatives come to collaborate with Aung Mental Health Initiative (Myanmar)?
Alecia: We were first contacted by a curator at a Yangon-based art space called “Myanm/art” about our interest in co-applying, with Aung Mental Health Initiative, for the SIF’s Arts for Good (A4G) Projects initiative.
After an initial conversation with the team at Aung Mental Health, Dr Aung Min, Dr San San Oo, and Nyarna Linn, we were moved by their long-term commitment to communities living with psychosocial disabilities and their efforts towards deinstitutionalising mental health and immediately saw a common purpose in working together for A4G Projects.
I understand that this is not your first time participating in the SIF’s A4G programme. Can you tell us more about your involvement over the years?
Alecia: I have participated in various A4G initiatives since 2012. The core aim of the programme resonates well with my work because it brings together artists and different sectors of society to collaborate on diverse social issues through art.
Several of my earlier projects received warm support from the SIF. This included Unseen: Shift LAB KL project in 2016 where I worked alongside Ng Chor Guan, the founder of Malaysian sound group Toccata Studio, and Christopher Ling, the artistic director of Malaysian theatre group theatrethreesixty. The project was initiated to encourage creative exchange between Singapore and Malaysian artists and offer an experimental space for art making for visually-impaired persons. We collaborated with 10 visually impaired adults from Malaysia from Dialogue in the Dark Malaysia who took part in a series of arts-based workshops in Kuala Lumpur.
Being part of the global A4G ecosystem has certainly opened many networking and collaboration opportunities for me over the years. I’m excited to work with the SIF again, this time around with my new counterparts from Myanmar.
Tell us more about your collaborative project, the Edible Art Club, and the activities and programmes that were organised, both here in Singapore and in Myanmar?
Alecia: We wanted to create a safe and dynamic space for conversations about disabilities and intercultural collaboration. The art and cultural activities shared with our participants arise from both groups’ combined experience in art-based community-building, working with disabled artists, caregivers and Aung Mental Health’s knowledge of mental health and wellbeing.
In Yangon, Aung Mental Health developed a new collaboration between their members and visually-impaired persons in their community, including visually-impaired members of the Golden Eagle Group led by Aung Ko Oo. They hosted a series of painting and art-making workshops with traditional rice paper for sighted and visually-impaired participants, creating a safe space for experimentation and mutual support. Each workshop gathering also involved sharing a meal prepared by local chefs, who are artists themselves, with indigenous recipes.
In Singapore, we had a slightly different emphasis where we focused more on the process of collaborative cooking, pairing sighted and visually-impaired partners together. We made a conscious decision to hold our workshops at Ground-up Initiatives, a local low-carbon footprint campus.
Apart from Unseen Art Initiatives’ community of visually-impaired persons, our new partners include Club Heal, an NGO that focuses on mental health, including dementia, and Asha & Co, a peer support community that promotes mental wellness through cooking, art and community gatherings. Our programme involved a weekly gathering of 17 – 20 sighted and visually-impaired persons, to prepare and cook a locally inspired meal led by my co-facilitator, visually-impaired home chef Penny Chong.
This was followed by artmaking and collective reflections on recipes for comfort. These conversations led to the creation of personal comfort menus which could be shared and practised by others. Their comfort menus manifested as a collective pocket-sized zine, which will be shared via a video featuring the voices of the group describing their recipes. Outside of the workshop space, Penny and I also tried to support the desires of our visually-impaired participants to cook independently at home, by labelling their induction cookers with Braille and navigating the dynamics of their home kitchen.
We held a joint physical art exhibition from 21 – 27 Jan 2023, hosted by Aung Mental Health Initiative, at Alliance France/Institut Français de Birmanie, Yangon, Myanmar and, on 25 February, we will be co-hosting a public Zoom webinar, Navigating systems of care through food and art, to share about the processes, challenges and insights developed during this collaborative Arts for Good project.
What were some of the challenges that you faced in having to work across national borders and cross-culturally on the project?
Penny Chong, Dr San San Oo and Nyarn Linn: Due to the different work schedules and availability of the creative team members and our participants, finding a common time to run the workshops in Singapore and Myanmar was difficult. Interactions between the participants in Singapore and Myanmar were therefore necessarily limited. While Zoom communications are particularly challenging for persons with disabilities, online interactions are not ideal, in any case, as they do not allow participants to fully engage in shared experiences, for example, perception of temperature or weather, the quality of light, smell and touch and the taste of food. Communication was also hampered by language differences, which required translation.
What do you think Unseen Art Initiatives, its partners and participants gained, in collaborating and working with Aung Mental Health Initiative, its partners and participants in Myanmar? What are the benefits of such exchanges, that take place across communities and cultures?
Penny Chong: The exchanges allow us to have a better understanding of the different communities within and across borders.
Nyarn Linn: It shows our respective communities that they are not alone. The networks and connections we now have with the counterpart communities are invaluable.
Dr San San Oo: This is a socially engaged art process, involving high levels of connection and strong communication. We experienced understanding, bonding, sharing, mutual contributing, struggling, talking, togetherness, joy, food as a team.
Alecia: During this process, I was also exposed to the daily challenges faced by our friends in Myanmar who have to navigate very challenging socio-political realities while doing their very best to support the needs of their community members. I have a lot of respect for the work that our friends at Aung Mental Health do, and am deeply grateful for the conversations that we have had about what drew them to social practice and embracing a community-based model. They have taught me a lot about humility and what it means to listen to the margins. By choosing to support our collaboration, platforms such as SIF’s A4G play a crucial role in enabling the space for global solidarities and diversity.
Could you share your thoughts on the role that art and art-making play in the Edible Art Project? Why is making art and, in particular, making art together, important? How do the communities that you serve in both countries benefit from such activities?
Penny Chong: I think art/art-making in all forms is a universal activity. There is no limit to creativity among people. It helps to narrow gaps/differences, joining people together. Art-making also allows people to understand one another’s needs and bring about greater empathy. I see this project as an opportunity to empower the participants and give them confidence in an area which they have not really tried on their own. This experience will certainly raise their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Another, equally important aspect of the Edible Art Project’s programme, is food – you organised programmes which involved the coming together of the participants, both here and Myanmar, to prepare, cook and/or share a meal together. Explain how the making and sharing of food plays a role.
Penny Chong: Often, I find meaningful conversations happen over a shared meal or drink. It is a time when people relax and their thoughts and feelings are more honest. Cooking is also very therapeutic. Hence, it’s like a combination of two relaxing things put together, cooking as a “therapeutic activity” and chit-chatting over a meal as a “healing activity”.
Nyarn Linn: Food brings people together. Sharing a meal is a fundamental part of Aung Mental Health Initiative’s peer psycho-social support programme.
Dr Aung Min: Food smoothens the process. People are more active, and creative after food. Food serves as an appetiser for the art process. Indigenous recipes bring back good memories from the people’s past. The history of our community kitchen started without any culinary advice. The participants were to take turns making food for the group. They are able to make food of their own without any instructions, restraints or advice. These foods produced from their own effort hold a great deal of sentimental value for the participants. They enjoy it, and value it.
Alecia: Cooking can be a very sensorial, embodied experience, that invites us to delve deeper into our histories and shared cultures. The process of cooking together and our shared conversations become a form of world-building, that invites the reframing of social norms and speaking our dreams and truth into existence.
What lies ahead for the Edible Art Club? What are some of your plans for the future now that these bonds have been forged and these connections made?
Dr San San Oo: Inspired by the exchange of activities between our two groups in Singapore and Myanmar, there is already an ongoing continuation of the activities of creating comfort menus and tea-making recipes, where we use healing food and art making in Aung Mental Health clinic. I believe it is good for our two teams to put efforts together in spreading and sharing the message of Edible Art Club to other disability and cultural organizations, mental health professionals, supporters who are interested in disability rights, well-being, multi-disciplinary art, social practice, community and integrative art.
Alecia: After the workshops in Singapore concluded, we’ve had feedback from our participants and partners that they all hope that our programme can continue and that this won’t be the last session. From discussions with our partners, we are excited to learn that Ground-Up Initiative is keen to continue working with us for future projects as they transition into their new space. There were also very positive connections fostered between Asha and Co and Club Heal, where they have also expressed a desire to collaborate on future programmes together focusing on mental health. We’ve been told that there is strong potential for more such programmes for persons with dementia, and that the intergenerational and intercultural mix of our group was incredibly valuable.
We’re planning to work with our volunteers and participants to co-design a sustainable model for continuing Edible Art Club, where leadership is shared and rotated. Many ideas are emerging and amongst them, there is also an exciting possibility of using ugly food to encourage reducing food waste in future iterations of this programme. We are also inspired by our Burmese friends’ use of indigenous recipes as a way of deepening our relationship with our cultures, and we most certainly want to also include this aspect as well. I know that Penny is also incredibly passionate about continuing to support the learning and independence of visually-impaired persons in the kitchen and in their lives. and I hope that our programme will continue to be a space to encourage that.
What advice might you have for artists or arts groups who are considering applying to the SIF’s Arts for Good Projects?
Alecia: Work with a partner whose work and practice you genuinely resonate with. We’ve found ourselves in the company of fellow practitioners who deeply care about people, and we couldn’t have asked for better collaborators on this journey.
Interested in submitting a proposal for an Arts for Good Project? The SIF is calling for submissions for 2023 and the deadline for submission is 5 March 2023. Click here for further details.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article is produced in partnership with the Singapore International Foundation. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.