Artists from Singapore and Malaysia collaborate on an art project to help the visually impaired community in Malaysia gain greater self-confidence and, in the process, foster greater social inclusion.
BY CHARLENE CHUA
PHOTO ALECIA NEO
Alecia Neo (centre) with participants of her Unseen project.
n December last year, 10 visually impaired adults from Malaysia were encouraged to share their stories in a series of arts-based workshops in Kuala Lumpur under Unseen: Shift LAB KL. The programme, part of Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Arts For Good initiative, aimed to use art to help the blind gain self-confidence.
“People donʼt know the world of the blind. I want them to see that our experience is not poor; it is just different. We have to rely on our other senses. Hopefully, once they experience what we experience, it creates empathy and inclusion.”
Stevens Chan, director of Dialogue In The Dark Malaysia
Singaporean artist Alecia Neo, 30, worked alongside Ng Chor Guan, the founder of Malaysian sound group Toccata Studio, and Christopher Ling, the artistic director of Malaysian theatre group theatrethreesixty, leading workshops in sound, performance, movement, storytelling, and photography. The 10 participants are all guides for social enterprise Dialogue In The Dark Malaysia, which runs experiential tours and workshops to help able-bodied individuals understand what it’s like to be visually impaired.
During the eight-day workshop, Neo’s role as lead artist was to push participants to think outside the box and gain new perspectives through their narratives. She says: “It is a long process to achieve complete empowerment. My small contribution to this is that we have triggered the imagination of the visually impaired and opened their minds to possibilities. Their mindset has to change collectively, perhaps with more direct interaction with the public.”
Stevens Chan, Dialogue In The Dark Malaysia’s director, says that the group is thankful to be part of this cross-border partnership, which he felt has greatly empowered the visually impaired community in Malaysia. Chan, 54, who is visually impaired, adds: “People don’t know the world of the blind. I want them to see that our experience is not poor; it is just different. We have to rely on our other senses. Hopefully, once they experience what we experience, it creates empathy and inclusion.”
An Unseen: Shift LAB KL participant, who declined to be named, says that the event provided a healthy and open environment for him to share his experience as a blind person. He adds: “I’m a quiet person, but the workshop made me want to share (my thoughts and feelings).”
ART AS CATALYST
Neo’s passion for working with the visually impaired began in 2011. With SIF support, she worked with visually impaired participants through non-profit organisation Bamboo Curtain Studio in Taiwan. The studio promotes cross-cultural exchanges by providing a meeting point for creative talents, for short visits or specific projects. During her artist residency in 2012 with the organisation, Neo conducted one-to-one photography workshops for six visually impaired participants from the Eden Social Welfare Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation for persons with disabilities in Taiwan.
The participants collaborated with Neo to create a series of images that represents their world. This culminated in an exhibition in Taipei, which was supported by SIF.
Neo says: “My intent was to explore art in the absence of sight. I wrestled with how we could develop an artistic process that takes into account the lived experiences of the disabled in a tangible way…to allow individuals from the group to gain autonomy and agency.”
She continues to explore the issues of sight and sightlessness in society as part of an ongoing, long-term art series, Unseen. She hopes her art can catalyse dialogue between individuals with visual impairment and those without as well as correct misperceptions about the visually impaired through reinterpreting and representing real stories from different individuals about blindness.
UNSEEN: SHIFT LAB KL IS PART OF SIF'S ARTS FOR GOOD INITIATIVE.