It was an overcast Thursday afternoon when I headed over to Objectifs – Centre for Photography & Film, though, curiously, the show I saw featured neither the medium of photography nor that of film.
Stepping into the main gallery, a riot of colours and textures greeted me. Part of me had gotten so used to what ‘traditional’ contemporary art looks like, that the showcase was a complete shock to my system. Where were the seemingly random object-based installations? Or the grainy films projected onto walls?
On the walls around me were instead canvases filled with vibrantly-toned fruit baskets standing against a smattering of abstract cool-toned shapes; imagined cityscapes painted in near-neon hues, filled with squirming shapes and details rendered in small marks; and wildly intricate ink drawings depicting sci-fi-inspired worlds.
At the centre of the exhibition stood a smaller showcase of glazed teapots, cups, and plates while dramatically suspended above were a handful of unglazed ceramics.
Walking around the space, I was surprised at how quickly I fell in love with some of the artworks. My personal favourite was a ferocious purple and pink hydra perched on top of a mountain against a brilliant yellow and orange sky. One of its fearsome violet heads bared its teeth to the onlooker, while darker-toned heads writhed in the background to create a sense of depth. While the artist used three different mediums, (watercolour paint, watercolour pencils, and acrylic paint), the colours were blended seamlessly, reminding me of illustrations of dragons that would grace the covers of fantasy novels.
Welcome to A Piece of Home, presented by Singaporean arts charity ART:DIS and curated by John Tung. The show features 26 young artists with disabilities, most of whom are neurodiverse, with their works responding to the complex concept of ‘home’.
The artists on show are enrolled in ART:DIS’s Artist-in-Training programmes, which “empower students to realise their unique perspective in art by providing training in artistic skill sets.”
Many of them have been working with the organisation since their primary school years, initially at a foundation level and before progressing into the Artist-In-Training programme, which nurtures them to work more independently. A fair few of the artists have spent more than 20 years developing their practices and finding their voices.
Tung got involved in curating the show after fellow artist Robert Zhao, who is a mentor with ART:DIS, referred him to the organisation. In their first meeting, ART:DIS Executive Director Angela Tan spoke passionately about how artworks by artists with disabilities are often sidelined from the mainstream.
“In most cases, presentation of artworks by these individuals would not receive the same professional treatment (tangibly and conceptually) that would be accorded to able-bodied and neurotypical persons,” Tung explained. This meant that artworks by individuals with disabilities tended to be shown predominantly in community-oriented social spaces or liminal spaces such as corridors and atriums, and tend not to take centre stage in institutions.
Additionally, understanding the gravity of an artwork’s setting factored into the decision to show A Piece of Home at Objectifs. Tan elucidated, “In situating our young artists’ exhibition in an established arts space, right in the heart of the arts and culture district, we want to raise the visibility of artists with disabilities in our cultural spaces, and bring greater awareness to their voices and perspectives.”
Between artistic ‘goodness’ and merit
Tung told me plainly that he curated A Piece of Home “no differently from how [he] would approach any other show.”
This involved speaking with the artists, making studio visits, listening to artists’ desires and concerns, conceptualising a coherent curatorial overview, and planning the layout. Individual expression and identity were key factors in Tung’s curation, noting that he had selected works that “represented [the artist’s] personality and approach to engaging and interacting with the world around them.”
There weren’t many challenges in setting up the show, but Tung’s main concern was that “audiences would not see the same “goodness” that [he] had seen in the artworks. Informing this was his personal conviction that while “everyone has different rubrics for assessing the quality of an artwork..authenticity trumps all else.”
While we might typically associate the theme of ‘home’ with literal depictions of houses and HDB blocks, there’s none of that here. Instead, the works represent each artist’s understanding of themselves and their places in the wider world, primarily through depicting their long-term interests. Tung was visibly moved when he told me more about the unbridled authenticity that characterises the works on show:
“These artists have incredible courage to be individualistic. To say that it’s because they’re naive or don’t know how the world works is a major discredit to them, because they have also been [depicting] these subjects for a very, very long time. They [fully] understand what home means, and for them to respond in this way, means that they are trying to make apparent to the audiences here, who they are, through the works presented.
And that’s incredibly important. It takes courage, for any artist for that matter, to be frank and disclose who they really are in public. These artists are very courageous, and that’s something that all of us can learn.”
The show also takes the important step of being inclusive not just in its slate of artists but in how the works can be enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible. There are audio guides for the visually impaired and there’s a black strip encircling the exhibition that functions as a tactile marker that supports wayfinding for the visually impaired. The overall effect is an immersive look into the world of art made by artists with disabilities, one which embraces all kinds of differences in its potential audience members as much as it highlights the artistic talent on display.
It’s a show for the community, by the community and the attention to detail in its viewer experience speaks to the multitude of concerns and difficulties faced by people with disabilities in their everyday lives. The little hints and details in A Piece of Home which acknowledge the multiplicity of potential visitor experiences send a subtle but clear message that there are others amongst us who do not enjoy the same physical ease of movement that many of us take for granted.
The elephant in the room
I am determined to confront the elephant in the room and return to Tung’s aforementioned concern: that many of the show’s works might not pander to what many consider to be fine art or works revered by the typical art historical canon. (The exhibition features, for example, a two-legged, Godzilla-like ‘Ocean Titan’ traversing the seas.)
So some might wonder, what is this doing in a visual arts space like Objectifs? Or how was any of this even ‘art’ in the first place?
Well, for starters, the artists on show have been working for years, even decades, on their practices and their works reflect an understanding of artistic techniques and refining of one’s skills. They are no different from artists who spend years grappling with creative progress and seeking to improve their practices.
Tung shared the example of Kenneth Lee, who creates intricate perspective drawings on paper with micron markers. Lee started drawing from the age of five and initially worked with pencil outlines. However, this year marked a breakthrough in his practice, as he has started drawing without said outlines and now works with markers freehand.
Then, there’s the showcase of both successful and failed ceramics at the gallery’s heart. Many of the ceramics on display are usable and full of personality, bearing the physical imprints of their creators and coated in unique glazes. Notably, the artists mixed the glazes themselves, meaning that none of them was store-bought and that the artists had to learn and understand some of the chemistry behind glaze-making.
But these artists did not master ceramics overnight; it took them eight months. In fact, you can get a sense of the artists’ numerous challenges and their sheer perseverance by glancing at the hanging installation of failed ceramics above the final pieces.
“When you look at the failed pieces, you also see that this innovation doesn’t always pan out right. These works represent.. the considerations, challenges and difficulties these artists had [in order] to reach this stage.”
In his curatorial statement, Tung drew parallels between how these artists with disabilities are treated differently from their able-bodied counterparts, with the example of the term Art Brut, which literally translates into Raw Art. It was coined in the 1940s to describe “self-taught artists who worked outside artwork conventions and lacked professional artists’ formal training. This group of people tended to refer to artists with mental or physical disabilities, recluses, prisoners, or otherwise marginalised individuals on the fringes of society.”
This term was unfortunately translated into ‘Outsider Art’ by Roger Cardinal in the 1970s. Not only does this reveal a strict binary between who gets to be considered a ‘real’ artist, but it also has drastic ripple effects on our understanding of who gets to create art and who gets a say in what is considered as ‘art’.
Funnily enough, Tung pointed out that the characteristics used to describe a work by an ‘outsider’ artist are similar to those used to talk about an ‘insider’ artist’s work. These typically include works “pertaining to obsessions over singular themes, obsessions, or personal mythologies in the work.”
It’s evident that each artist on show here has specific interests which are threaded through their work, by way of a chosen visual language. Simeon Tan (who drew my favourite hydra above) is interested in creating chimaeras, resulting in him also drawing a fabulous chicken-headed chameleon hybrid, perched on a tree branch alongside a butterfly. In his series of linocut prints, Christian Tan reflects on his day job as a cleaner at Ren Ci Nursing Home in a harmonious palette of forest green, cobalt, and navy.
Seeing these artists express what’s important to them and build an artistic practice around such ideas, to me, is proof that art does not solely have to take the form of a work in the confines of a white cube gallery or art history textbook. This doesn’t devalue the hard work of practitioners who have toughed it out on the traditional paths of art school and gallery representation either. I merely advocate for an expanded understanding of what we may perceive as art. Our understandings should include works that were created intentionally to authentically express oneself with skills that were refined over time—no matter what forms they may take, and regardless of who has made them.
Creating inclusive ways of seeing
So where does this leave us, and moving forward, how can we view such art, created by individuals with diverse backgrounds?
Tung is clear that it’s not about ignoring the artist’s biographies or their identities as individuals with disabilities. Rather, we should seek to understand that the sporadic and oftentimes arbitrary inclusions and omissions of personal labels can be problematic acts in themselves.
Tung is quick to add that it’s not that there aren’t any commercial or institutionally important artists with disabilities, but that “their disabilities were de-emphasised” along the way. His example of Yayoi Kusama is telling of how an artist’s disabilities can be obscured.
”For instance, how often are mentions of Kusama’s “iconic polka dots” made in the same breath as “psychedelic schizophrenia” and “obsessive-compulsive disorder”?” he pondered.
Instead, Tung urged us to critically consider each artist’s personal contexts and how they affect the artists’ practices, saying that “[artists who are already accepted by the art world] need to be franker about their disabilities, while ‘outsiders’ need to emphasise their artistic capabilities, and everyone needs to ask themselves honestly why and how a label like ‘disabled’ or ‘neurodivergent’ should be shaping their approach to [any kind of artistic] evaluation.”
But if none of that has managed to change your mind on what ‘art’ is and who gets to make it, I implore you to check out the show itself and bask in the palpable exuberance that the works embody. And as parting food for thought, let me share Tung’s final words on the show with you: “If it’s not art, what is it?”
Feature image courtesy of ART:DIS Singapore.