Singapore is home to a number of art prizes that celebrate emerging and established talent, but this year we were thrilled to hear about the inaugural UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize, Singapore’s first comprehensive art prize that recognises all stages of artistic practice by artists with disabilities.
Eight recipients were honoured at the awards ceremony, which was hosted at The Arts House on 4 August 2023.
The Prize is split into categories depending on the artist’s background and age. The Open category saw submissions from individuals in SPED (special education) schools, with the Child and Youth categories reserved for those aged 6 -12 years old and 13 -18 years old respectively.
On the other hand, the Closed category was for individuals who participate in ART:DIS’ existing programmes. As many artists who study with ART:DIS have mostly completed their formal education, the Closed category is split further into Emerging Artist and Professional Artist categories, for those aged 19 – 35 years old and 36 and above, respectively.
The prize received over 300 submissions and participants ranged in age from six to 76 across a spectrum of sensory, intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.
But why is such a prize necessary and how can both artists with disabilities and society at large benefit from it? And is the art any good?
We speak frankly to the prize’s panel of judges, winning artists, and the artists’ families to find out.
An eye on the prize
Believing that artists with disabilities should have access to the same opportunities as non-disabled artists, judge and independent curator John Tung told us,
“Such a prize is exceedingly significant as art by disabled artists also requires discussion, evaluation, and benchmarking. In this manner, they can be more thoroughly and equitably incorporated into the wider arts ecosystem.”
“A prize (like this) sends a powerful message that the artistic contributions of persons with disabilities are valuable and deserve recognition on par with those of their non-disabled peers,” adds fellow judge Dee Chia, Deputy Director of Audience and Engagement at National Gallery Singapore.
Celebrating skill and passion
It’s evident from looking at the winning submissions and honourable mentions that the participants are able to showcase a breadth of material and creative exploration, and that the finished works of art are sophisticated and developed in their execution.
A love of art-making drove 40-year-old Fern Wong, a winner in the Closed category to produce her winning piece, PAPERAZZI, which she worked on for a few hours every day over the course of many months.
Taking the form of a mixed media work featuring bulletin paper, PAPERAZZI is an ode to the artist’s admirable patience and dexterity. It depicts a tapestry of five vibrantly hued, square-like shapes on a blackened background.
Look closely and you’ll see that each major shape consists of rows and rows of rainbow paper cutouts, with each featuring a different style of cutting. Some length-wise rows have grid-like squares cut into them, while other sections depict triangles and irregular shapes. All at once, the work is reminiscent of the asymmetrical beauty of mosaic tiles and the intense scale of a large, thousand-piece puzzle.
To be honest, at first glance, I found Wong’s work a little hard to read. But the more time I spent looking at PAPERAZZI, the harder it hit me: the magic of the work lay in Wong’s ability to turn ordinary materials like bulletin paper into an ornate realm that compels viewers to get lost in it.
As judge Adeline Kueh says, Wong’s work encourages viewers “to go closer and figure out the inner workings of the artist and her thoughts. Having said that, the viewer’s inability to ‘know everything’ due to how some lines are obscured or removed also suggests the fact that we, as viewers, can’t know all that an artist (like Fern) goes through.”
On top of a $10,000 cash prize, Wong will be provided with the incredible opportunity to host a solo exhibition of her works—what her mother, Lily Wong, calls her daughter’s “long-cherished dream.”
As for Issac Tan, another winner in the Closed category, self-portraits are some of his favourite works to make. “I really liked this portrait because it is a good image of me,” he says of his winning Self Portrait, which is the culmination of his practice of working with different materials such as watercolour, acrylic, pencil, poster colours and pencil colours for the past five years.
Over the course of art history, many artists have embarked on self-portraits—be it to save money on the hiring of models or to deepen their understanding of themselves. Art historian Paul Greenhalg and social sciences professor Raymond Crozier suggest another reason as to why artists are drawn to this genre: “to tell the truth about oneself to both oneself and to others.”
This is a perspective that I can agree with, looking at how Tan was able to honestly depict himself both figuratively and conceptually with expressive brush strokes. On top of this, Self Portrait reflects the artist’s skill to capture the light and shadow on his face with warm, peachy tones and contrasting deep shades of green and blue, highlighting his understanding of colour theory.
Painted in tones of sea green, navy, and phthalo, realistic stacks of fish take centre stage in Today’s Catch by Mark Rojan Montenegro Tupas, a winner of the Open, Youth category. While the 18-year-old usually draws animals like elephants and zebras, he decided to explore depicting sea creatures such as fish for his submission—“Also, because my favourite dish is fish,” he adds.
Technically speaking, I admired the chiaroscuro of the composition. Bold, uninterrupted brushstrokes of paler shades gave the impression that the fish were freshly caught, their bodies glimmering, perhaps still wet with seawater. On the other hand, the darker washes of paint that surrounded the fish suggested them being packed tightly together, reminding me of seeing the fresh seafood on display at wet markets that my grandmother took me to when I was growing up.
Looking at Today’s Catch, I found myself appreciating how the artist made such a quotidian scene so evocative, with a skillful contrast of light and shadow and expressive, dappled textures.
Making space for artistic diversity
The effects of the UOL X ART:DIS Art Prize on the wider arts ecosystem and society at large cannot be understated either. By “accepting alternative ways of expression,” Chia notes it “fosters understanding and empathy by exposing audiences to diverse narratives and experiences.”
“It can also encourage galleries, museums and institutions to adopt more inclusive practices and make accommodations that allow all artists to participate and thrive,” Chia comments.
Despite this, we wondered: if the point of the prize is to make an inclusive space for all artists with disabilities, then why is it important to acknowledge ‘winners’ and ‘runners-up’?
The judges enlighten us on this issue, noting that the camaraderie and inspiration that the prize generates is more important than any sense of competitive rankings.
In addition, Kueh explains,
“Most of us on the judging panel felt that it is important to acknowledge the most outstanding entries of each category as the winners. This acknowledgement, however, does not reduce the level of inclusivity or the recognition of immense talent that ought to be encouraged further.”
“Art-making can often be isolating so awards like this can help affirm the artists’ efforts and hard work, and perhaps give them encouragement (monetary or otherwise) to keep on making their works that come from an honest and unique positioning.”
All in all, it’s evident that the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize not only uplifts and celebrates the artistic outputs and dedication of artists with disabilities, but also enriches our local art scene with more diverse perspectives and creative modes of expression.
As Kueh sagely puts it, “Artistic expressions of all sorts are needed and to be respected so that our art ecosystem may be richer because of such diversity.”
This article is produced in partnership with the ART:DIS. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.