One Love, One He(art)

This year’s Arts for Good Fellowship connects arts professionals globally in elevating the lives of youths through creativity.

BY ANNE CHAN & CARA YAP

T

he kind of work we do can sometimes be very taxing and lonely. But knowing that there are others who are impacting and empowering communities motivates me,” said Muhammad Noramin Bin Mohamed Farid, Joint Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a Singapore-based multidisciplinary arts company that embraces differences in race, religion and class.

Seeking to build capacity and connect with professionals to better harness the arts for social change, Noramin and other arts practitioners joined the 2018/2019 Arts for Good Fellowship by Singapore International Foundation. The theme of this edition – which brings together 32 Fellows from 10 countries – is “Youth Empowerment Through the Arts”.

For Noramin, having a circle of like-minded peers helps to sustain his advocacy of arts for the greater good. His sentiments are shared by Singapore arts producer Lin Shiyun, who started “Let’s Go PLay OutSide!” – an initiative that nurtures children from low-income families through imaginative play.

For her, sustainability is the most common challenge in the Arts for Good arena. “Having the funding and the people to run the programme is challenging. When you don’t have enough resources, you tend to get tired after a while. In the initial stage, there’s always that drive and you can easily find volunteers. But after three years, that’s when things get difficult,” Lin explains.

EXPANDING HORIZONS
The Arts for Good Fellowship connects a diverse cross section of artists, arts administrators and programmers to gain interdisciplinary insights. Given the diverse background of the Fellows, they were able to draw inspiration from each other during the Singapore exchange trip (November 20-23, 2018).

“I found the workshop by Charlotte Goh from Singapore-based charity Playeum particularly interesting. Goh shared her philosophy of letting children find their own answers. Her rocket-making session allowed me to reflect on how we all have an inner child, which can be tapped into by using the right creative tools,” shares Anika Singh, Director of VOYCE, a social enterprise in India focused on empowering health through the arts. Singh says that she has been inspired to incorporate Goh’s principles in her own methods of communication. And while she admires Goh’s youthful, energetic delivery on a practical level, she also learnt from the Singaporean’s  strategic approach towards marketing Playeum, which works with children using play-based learning.

The annual meeting of minds - the 2018/2019 Arts for Good Fellowship involved 32 Fellows from 10 countries coming together to share insights, challenges and solutions.

Witnessing the processes of other arts practitioners also inspired Tran Thuy, the Culture Programme Officer at UNESCO Hanoi.

In a workshop on creative empowerment facilitated by Stephanie Turner from Partners for Youth Empowerment in the UK, she learnt how the arts can be harnessed to bring people together and facilitate dialogue. “We played simple games and shared personal stories without the fear of appearing foolish. Through these exercises, I became more aware of the difficulties that other people have to deal with,” she explains.

As it turns out, Turner’s workshop had a deep impact on the Fellows, including Noramin. “Stephanie taught us how to introduce one another using movement, dance and song, thus acknowledging the creativity of others,” he explains. The PhD candidate in Dance at Royal Holloway, University of London has since integrated some of these activities into his Malay dance lessons run at his company.

Besides talks and workshops, the Singapore exchange trip also featured visits to arts organisations and panel discussions led by Singaporean arts practitioners. At one such session, entitled “Making an Impact Through the Arts”, co-organised by the National Youth Council, Tran was impressed by the ingenuity of young Singaporeans who use the arts to address different social issues. Here, she learnt about Beyond Social Services, which uses interactive theatre to help children from low-income families build their self-esteem and resilience.

“In Vietnam, we have yet to pay sufficient attention to such social work, especially when it comes to issues related to mental health,” says Tran. “My plan is to connect local NGOs, particularly those working with vulnerable children, to local arts groups. This will facilitate the integration of creative practices to social work in my city.”

THE ARTS FOR GOOD FELLOWSHIP ALSO OPENED THE FELLOWS’ EYES TO CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES AND NUANCES ONCE UNFAMILIAR TO THEM.

BRIDGES ACROSS BORDERS
While the Arts for Good Fellowship drew Fellows’ attention to the myriad ways of effecting social change through the arts, it has also opened their eyes to cultural perspectives and nuances once unfamiliar to them.

For Singh, being in close contact with Fellows from different countries gave her insights on the issues faced by their various communities. “In one of the ice-breaking sessions, we had to pretend that we were holding guns. To us, this was just a simple exercise, but another Fellow, public art coordinator Ayana Hosten from New York, expressed that such weapons were not something to be taken lightly in her community, where many kids are growing up in an environment where gun violence is widespread,” she shares.

But at the end of the day, it was a message of hope that resonated with the Fellows. During a visit to a low-income neighbourhood in Singapore, for instance, Singh shares how one of her group members, Cambodian Chanreaksmey Khuon, opened up about the great difficulties he faced growing up. Hearing how he overcame his challenges to eventually help improve the lives of children through the arts filled Singh with admiration for his resilience.

Mutual admiration was evident throughout the Singapore exchange trip, and Kari Seeley, general manager of Australia’s No Strings Attached (NSA) Theatre of Disability, sums up the prevailing sentiment: “In Australia, we have something called tall poppy syndrome, where we tend to disparage those who have achieved success. But meeting people like Singaporean artistic director Jeffrey Tan, one of the Fellows, who has done amazing things in the field of inclusive arts with so much humility, has given me a deeper appreciation for individuals working towards arts for good."

Left: Panel discussions and dialogues saw enthusiastic participation from the Fellows. Right: Workshops often entailed uninhibited hands-on participation from the Fellows.

LASTING CONNECTIONS
One of Arts for Good Fellowship’s main aims is to encourage Fellows towards future collaborations. Upon its completion, they get to join a global alumni where they will continue to support and work with each other.

Though this year’s Fellowship is still ongoing, Fellows are already looking towards future partnerships. Seeley and Singh have plans to bring an arts festival for people with disabilities to India.

“I am looking at visiting Delhi to meet with Anika and some high-level officials to talk about putting the festival together. Anika’s passion for challenging people’s perceptions of disability really aligns with my personal beliefs,” shares Seeley, who also works as an audio describer providing live description for blind and visually impaired audience members during theatre performances.

It certainly was a fruitful trip for Seeley, who during a visit to Singapore’s Kim Choo Artiste Residency met owner Edmund Wong. They bandied about the possibility of a future collaboration that would see NSA’s artists hosted at the historic Peranakan house where the residency is located.

In February 2019, the Fellows embarked on their second exchange programme in Chennai, India. Here, they got to see first-hand the work of Arts for Good Fellowship alumnus Sriram Ayer, the founder of award-winning NGO NalandaWay Foundation – which helps disadvantaged children through the arts – among others. For the Fellows, it was yet another opportunity to grow their vision of forging a better world through creativity.




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