It’s an adage that’s come up repeatedly since the start of the pandemic: in times of uncertainty, we need art more than ever. To support and inspire, to comfort and to make a statement about the change we need. Ahead, we spotlight five names dealing with the visual arts in Singapore that are committed to making the world a better place.
How does one’s relationship with clothes change with age and its effects on the body – lines, bunions and all? Does intimacy stop when a woman is past an age predetermined as desirable by popular culture?
Such questions are part of what artist Salty Ng prods at with her body of work, which includes The Grandma Reporter (TGR) – an ongoing project started in 2016 and manifested as a zine with the aim of exploring various aspects of “senior female culture”.
So dedicated is the 34-year-old to the subject that the third and latest issue of TGR has led to one of her biggest endeavours revealed two months ago: Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing and Being, staged as part of local theatre company T:>Works’ annual Festival of Women, N.O.W. (short for “not ordinary work”).
A virtual project, Not Grey comprises a series of 15 video vignettes and interactive performances each helmed by a different woman who was tasked to explain what intimacy means to her. Spanning the ages of 59 to 82, these collaborators make an eclectic posse – from a “love witch” to former Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal – who jointly shatter societal expectations of what older women should be.
“Seniors are expected not to create trouble. You are supposed to be a crowd-pleaser, play with your grandchildren, take care of your health, take up cute hobbies like gardening and crochet, find that spiritual path,” says NGO consultant Zubee Ali in her segment that sees her reflect on being a celibate single parent who’s rediscovering her sensuality and sexual orientation in her 50s.
“You are supposed to be invisible.” Meanwhile, for Patricia Lim, intimacy means fantasy dressing to indulge herself. The 60-year-old is a hairstylist, makeup consultant and self-professed cosplay aficionado.
Close to her grandmothers growing up, Ng ultimately hopes to provide these individuals a platform. “Women of their generation have been through a lot. Many had to inhabit domestic roles that they might not have fully wanted, giving up their own dreams and desires along the way,” she explains.
“I’ve always been curious about their inner worlds, which I imagine must hold a lot that’s not found a way out.
The 60-year-old cosplay aficionado Patricia Lim takes the spotlight in artist Salty Ng’s zine-style project The Grandma Reporter, revealing that she indulges in fantasy dressing as a form of self-intimacy.
Its name is an acronym for “Not Safe For TV”. The subjects it covers: anything from hazing culture in schools to illegal street car racing in Singapore to casual racism. And further setting it apart from other platforms here that also focus on social commentary: its stylish, thoughtfully crafted videos with a strong focus on credible narratives.
Launched in end-2018 as the original content arm of local production company The Hummingbird Co to push the boundaries of online content here, NSFTV bills itself as a “video platform driving culture and change”, releasing an average of two new works monthly. Its creative producer See Yan Shan explains that the shorts are based on a mix of responses to current affairs and what speaks instinctively to the eight-man team, all of whom are in their 20s.
Take how executive producer Tan Hui Er had embarked on the part-animation, part-vlog-style video I Do Not Know How To Say Goodbye to capture folks who had lost their loved ones to Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic last year.
The experience became extra poignant when one interviewee revealed that she had agreed to be a part of it because she did not want her relative to have passed in vain. “At the heart of our work is a desire to make people – especially younger folks – feel seen and heard,” says Tan. “It’s a very powerful thing when you make people feel genuinely represented.”
This ethos and dedication to it has resonated with a steadily growing audience (22K followers on Instagram). And while the platform had never set out to be a forum, the heated comments its work can sometimes draw – watch the slice-of-life style video So, What Should She Do? that spotlights the issue of voyeurism in Singapore in conjunction with International Women’s Day this year – can be said to be a sign that NSFTV is making an impact.
“Once you put a video out there, it can go either direction, but I guess the nice part is when you see people having an active and hopefully civil discussion about it,” says Tan. “That’s all you can ask for: to make work that sparks conversations.”
Video platform NSFTV takes pride in crafting elevated short films that explore social issues commonly experienced by youths or the gritty side to life here. Says its executive producer Tan Hui Er: “Our content is always about what we as young people don’t see represented enough on mainstream media.”
This three-year-old boutique film and TV company specialises in working with local and regional emerging names and women filmmakers in the back-end processes that people don’t always get to see: casting, script consultancy, post-production management and the like. Behind it: Singaporeans Tan Si En and Kris Ong who – as an independent producer and filmmaker respectively – know-how support is crucial for this demographic of talents.
Says the 28-year-old Tan, who’s served as producer on some of the most illustrious local films to have emerged in recent years including Pop Aye (2017) and Wet Season (2019): “After working in the industry for a while, we noticed a continued lack of opportunities for emerging independent Southeast Asian filmmakers to have their works produced and distributed. We set up Momo to support a new generation of makers of short films and like to collaborate with those who have a strong vision of what they want and who know what the Southeast Asian identity means to them.”
In fact – at a time when small players need assistance more than ever – Momo has ramped up on its cause, launching not one, but two initiatives last year. The first is the annual Objectifs Short Film Incubator created in collaboration with the local non-profit visual arts institution that pairs nascent directors with experienced mentors to help refine their film scripts.
Then in December, it revealed the Momo Distribution Grant that’s a partnership with the Singapore and South Korea-based content investment firm C47. Reportedly the first of its kind in the region, the programme provides recipients not only with modest cash grants, but also help with distribution, marketing and branding.
“There is so much talent in our region, and initiatives such as the Incubator creates a space for filmmakers to grow, connect and create,” says Tan. “It goes back to the idea of community. The growth of the Southeast Asian film industry is dependent on people coming together to help one another.”
Stills from Singapore filmmaker Nelson Yeo’s 2019 Mary, Mary, So Contrary – one of the works supported by Momo Film Co as part of its drive to support emerging regional talents. The short, which weaves together repurposed footage from two classic films as well as Yeo’s own, has been a hit on the global festival circuit and won awards such as the Best Short Film prize at this year’s Ribalta Experimental Film Festival in Italy.
The pandemic has unearthed many issues in Singapore long overdue for critical discussion. Among them: the often transactional relationship between locals and low-wage workers – cleaners, domestic helpers, migrant workers.
Confounded by how these individuals often face prejudice even though what they do is vital, Nicolette Ow set about portraying them in a different light as part of her final-year project as a fashion media and industries student at Lasalle College of the Arts.
Reaching out to them via non-profit organisations that support these marginalised groups, she cast them as models in a series of polished portraits that look right out of a fashion magazine. Aiming to truly celebrate – not exploit – them, she also remunerated each one according to modelling industry rates and built their outfit and photos around their personal stories.
Project engineer Vijay, for example, looks every part the romantic artist in a wide-brimmed fedora and cream-coloured lavalliere shirt and wide-legged pants – he’s also an aspiring poet and writer who’s in the midst of penning a novel.
Far from invisible, every one of Ow’s subjects exudes dignity and cool – a peek of which can be seen on the Instagram account @inplainsight.sg. “Given the stigma associated with low-wage workers, placing them in supposedly ‘high fashion’ images creates a sense of visual tension that will hopefully ignite meaningful discussion,” explains Ow.
This month, the 24-year-old who has since graduated and found a job as a content strategist launches pre-orders for a print compilation of her work with the intention of making it an annual initiative and donating part of the proceeds to relevant volunteer organisations.
“One worker whom I had interviewed said that when he takes the MRT, he doesn’t make eye contact with anyone and only feels like he can interact with someone if the other party initiates contact,” she says. “This stuck with me and says a lot about the position of these low-wage workers in our society. There is more to be done and I hope to feature a more diverse range of voices and communities as I continue this project.”
The models here are in fact low-wage workers – domestic helpers and migrant workers – who’ve been given a cool and dignified makeover in Nicolette Ow’s debut publication In Plain Sight, which aims to give visibility to undervalued communities. Pictured clockwise, from top left: Rajendran Vijayakanth, Angelene P.Risos, Ponnusamy Periasamy, Chun Poh Choo, Betty de Loreto and Wartiningsih
There are silver linings even in this interminable pandemic. Last year saw the national spotlight forced upon the migrant worker community when Covid-19 cases within it started to explode. This, says Sama Sama co-founder Kari Tamura Chua, presented a unique opportunity and ramped up the urgency for society to address some of the issues with migrant welfare here.
Co-founded by the mixed media artist Calvin Tay, the organisation – its name means “same same” in Malay – started as an arts campaign in 2015 and was one of the earliest players in Singapore to make migrant workers and their living situation a focus. Its ethos: to redefine the narrative of migrant workers so that they’re seen not as victims, but active agents for change.
Using art to bridge the considerable chasms between the local and migrant communities, it revealed its latest and literally biggest initiative in June: a 6m-high mural on a stretch of wall at the new Migrant Worker Onboarding Centre in Tengah painted by the visual artist Soph O.
Created with input from the site’s workers, the vivid and sophisticated work is the first installation in Making Waves – a mural project Sama Sama launched in partnership with the Dormitory Association of Singapore and dorm operator Tee Up Dormitory to transform different dormitory sites into collaborative art spaces involving artists, workers and the local community.
Social distancing measures has meant that interactive engagement between all three parties had to be minimised during the production process, but the eventual easing of restrictions will see more active participation in future editions. Already, the urban artist Laurie Maravilla has started on her mural at CCK Dorm in Choa Chu Kang; street artist Sam Lo is on board the project; and any creatives, site owners and volunteers interested to partner up to “paint walls of new possibilities” can reach out.
“So many people live behind these high, blank walls that we walk or drive past every day, but we don’t really think about this,” says Tay. “Making Waves excites me because we are using these walls – walls that are meant to shut out – as a canvas to bring attention to this issue and the people and stories behind them.
Sama Sama’s latest project Making Waves uses art to connect migrant workers, artists and local communities through the communal act of painting over the mundane walls that surround the workers’ dormitories. Its first installation pictured here can be seen at the Migrant Worker Onboarding Centre in Tengah and was created by the visual artist Soph O with stories and input from the workers living on-site in mind.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 Brave New World edition of FEMALE