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12 "Non-Essential" Artists Share Their Never-Seen-Before Works With Us

Twelve creatives – including some of Female’s closest collaborators – give us their perspective through never-seen-before works that reflect their frame of mind mid-circuit breaker.
Stefan Khoo, photographer and frequent collaborator with Female
The work “The guy in these images is Charles, a dear friend who I grew up with, and was my first muse and the first person I ever shot. He always came to mind during my earlier photography assignments because he possessed this confidence and spontaneity. We have all evolved since and these photos are part of an ongoing project that another close collaborator and I are working on to define masculinity in Singapore, taken 12 years after I had last shot Charles.   Again, he was the first person who I thought of when embarking on this series. It was not so much for nostalgia’s sake though, but because working with him reminds me of that period of exploration, and spirit of fun, curiosity and freedom we had when we were younger.   These photos were taken in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the night with my car’s headlights as the main light source – only for my car’s battery to go flat after. (We had to get another friend to come help us out of our predicament.) It was silly, but we had fun and still laugh about it. So, here’s to more late-night adventures and brighter days ahead.”     On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “I have had commercial projects that were shelved due to the pandemic. An interesting project had just come up and I was required to travel for it. We had most of the leg work completed already, and the excitement was building up, and we received the news that countries were closing their borders. That project was called off at the eleventh hour and the team was gutted. It was then that magnitude of the situation became real.   Those projects were bigger photographic productions that required a full team to come together physically to execute, so I approached this period as another moment of life put on hold. There are times when we feel like that but we overcome these feelings eventually.”     On what’s essential to him “Living life in its full spectrum of ups and downs, pain and joy, is essential to me. It makes me feel alive and reminds me of my reality, and that drives my work as a photographer.”     On the changing role of photography amidst the pandemic “The role of photography has already changed with time, the pandemic is just a temporary pause in the grand scheme of things. We are waiting to go out there to create in our different ways again.”   Khairullah Rahim, multi-disciplinary artist whose signature assemblages often incorporate found and everyday objects sourced from spaces in which marginalised communities inhabit
The work “During the circuit-breaker, I developed a series of accidental assemblages with materials lying around in my bedroom that was meant to be thrown out. This piece, Untitled (circuit breaker exercise #3), is one of several from this body of experimental works. Upon close inspection, viewers may notice familiar objects like cardboard boxes and masking tape, drawing parallels to my recent exhibition, Gathering Of Flocks (that saw Khairullah transform the mundane into ornate sculptures, making one re-evaluate their worth).”     On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “Recently, my solo exhibition titled Gathering of Flocks held at Yavuz Gallery, Gillman Barracks had to close barely a week after opening to the public due to the circuit-breaker. It saddened me deeply as we have worked very hard for the exhibition. Nevertheless, I understood why it was necessary.   However, we have taken several actions to continue promoting the exhibition, albeit virtually. More information on the exhibition and works can be found on the gallery’s website. Recently, I have also been offered the opportunity to speak and share about the exhibition via live streaming on Facebook on a platform called Really Really Free Chat Room whichwas initiated by Post-Museum.”     On his changing approach as an artist amidst the pandemic “The situation with the pandemic right now and the circuit-breaker which was implemented recently has been extremely challenging and taxing both physically and mentally for everyone. Many people I know, including myself, are still trying to get a grasp in navigating our daily lives as everyday routines have been affected to an undesirably great degree. As an artist, this lockdown period has provided me the time and space which were relatively scarce before, to go back to the fundamentals; making sketches and experimenting new materials.”     On how essential the arts is “I don’t know if art should be considered essential, but I strongly feel that it can and has been pivotal in providing a vehicle to trigger action towards solving basic human issues. From sparking discourse on dire issues to providing entertainment and leisure as coping mechanisms, art has been central in problem-solving, especially now.” Elsa Wong, the photographer and member of fashion collective Youths In Balaclava
The work “I shot this series of images for a book titled An Intimate Orchestra: The Anatomy and its Mechanics that I created for my final-year project as a Fashion Media and Industries student at Lasalle College of the Arts. The book’s premise: An individual’s body is very much like an organic machine with both an empathetic side and a more mechanical side that helps keep it alive and upright.   In a way, it is like a show for one; an intimate and tenacious orchestra (and the book set out to express this visually). I was very hands-on with the project, creating the garments and props. I was unafraid to carry out my plans even though I was on a student budget. It all reminds me of the tenacious spirit my friends and I had in school, finding ways to achieve our big ideas with nothing seeming impossible.   I think this spirit applies to any challenges and it motivates me in a situation like this pandemic, when we should all the more step outside of our comfort zones. It’s possible to be creative in any situation and find inspiration anywhere.”     On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “I had a few projects I was working on that was disrupted by the pandemic, some had to be postponed till the circuit-breaker is over and some were ongoing that needed a change in approach to complete the project.   One of the projects was for Pure Ever, an art collective, we had recently done an exhibition in collaboration with I_S_L_A_N_D_S called PrayPal. We had been working on the exhibition since March and as we were nearing the opening date, the circuit-breaker was announced and we knew that we would not be able to have an opening. We had intended for the works and installations to be viewed in their physical space. However, until the circuit-breaker ends, no one will be able to view these works physically.   We had to think of solutions of how we could bring the exhibition online and still create an immersive experience. In that short time, which was about a week, we scrambled together ideas and modes of capturing our work. We had planned a Facebook Live stream with a panel discussion on a software called IMVU – you can create your avatars and join the room – and added a 360-degree capture of the works and the space. We installed a CCTV so we could view the space live on the Facebook stream.   We stuck to the programme of the showcase as much as possible, even holding an artist talk on Facebook Live a few weeks ago to go more in-depth into the works and installations. This created a more intimate space for the artist and the viewer – even though it’s virtual.”     On how essential the arts is “The creative industry is filled with different communities and there are always new and innovative ways to involve everyone and to make sure that there is a safe space both online and offline. It has allowed many to be able to find peers they can connect with and give them a sense of belonging. Creative people can be optimistic and imaginative. The pandemic has shown that a sense of optimism is important, especially, for those who have lost work and all the things they looked forward to have become lost opportunities.   The fashion industry has always been hyper-functional and adaptive to any situation and bumps. There are pros and cons when it comes to how they handle situations – the cons usually show the uglier side of the industry like its treatment of workers. But seeing how the fashion industry has responded to the pandemic, it creates a solution and something to look forward to in the future. It serves as an inspiration for aspiring creatives and designers that you do not have to put creativity on hold and that it can be used to make a change if you actively seek to.” Aiwei Foo, multi-disciplinary artist and one-half of The Picnic, an art studio specialising in conceptual experiences
The work “This piece is part of a series called Daily Hat Objects and is both a ‘sketch’ and part of my research for another series I’m working on about hat design. During the lockdown, utilising the available resources around me became obligatory not only because of the circumstances but also because I’ve always loved improvising and being spontaneous when working. The results might seem irrelevant and useless, but what I hope to do is offer another perspective on how we can form new relationships with the objects around us in a light-hearted manner.”   On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “Initially we were planning to do more tearoom projects within Singapore/Malaysia and also in other cities. We were anticipating more cross-disciplinary artist collaborations as well such as the one we did in late Feb at The Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur, in which we did a collaboration with a Malaysian sound artist/musician. I find it tough to engage the audience online especially with the latest projects I am working on which are based on spontaneous human interactions experienced through physical participation. I am thinking in terms of how to reach out to the people if we have to do it without the physical contact and yet still with the optimum interactions. It is complicated, and I haven’t gotten an absolute solution yet.”   On how essential the arts is “It is only essential if it provides a certain form of support to the social structure. Art is not leisure; its role is to support our human software on an emotional and spiritual level.”   On how the industry should evolve “Regardless of the artistic discipline, I hope that artists and creatives will start to think about how we can use art as a pragmatic tool for functionality in everyday life.” Divaagar, the visual artist whose practice involves exploring identities and the human body through a deeply personal reimagination of physical spaces and environments
The work “This is a still from a video that I’m working on, currently titled Alive Stream. It’s inspired by guided meditation videos and how most of them stem from a connection to something larger. Most often these videos feature meditation journeys based in natural settings like forests and bodies of water. (My video is meant to show how in times of a circuit-breaker or lockdown), when we can’t connect to such elements, what we do have are simulations from various media that can provide us similar comfort.”     On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “While I can’t give out any details, I have had some work postponed or cancelled and some that have needed some reconfiguration. That said, I’m not entirely worried about the disruption, and I’d ask whether there is an urgency in putting it out there and if time will change the work we intended to show.   So far, it’s been a reimagining of the delivery of the works. I think there’s an emphasis now to revamp and repackage our products, and how that changes with our situation. If possible, how do we rethink the way our art can be translated through digital means, and how does the medium change the way one experiences it?   There have been new projects in digital realms popping up to occupy the void that the loss of opportunities has left, which seem more suited for the situation we’re in.”   On what’s essential to him “A good number of rules and constraints create ideal conditions for art. Total freedom only begets procrastination.”   On how essential the arts is “As I sat up in bed watching Netflix today, procrastinating to answer these questions, I thought about how important having distractions from our current situation is. There’s a lot of talk about social distancing and I think art can offer a great distraction for people stuck at home, whether through producing or consuming it.   Similarly, digital media can be incredibly unifying – great in times of isolation and for providing comfort to people in essential work. I’ve noticed on supermarket runs that delivery people and taxi drivers all turn to their phones when waiting for the next job to come in (so creativity on this platform is very important).” Shawna Wu, the New York-based Taiwanese designer who works with textile-based materials
The work “The photo (above) was taken by my grandpa in the ’70s as part of his work – he was then Taiwan’s minister of agriculture and his job included visiting farms and documenting and checking up on the health of plants and produce around Taiwan.   The image below features my own work: harnesses created using Chinese knotting techniques and a new form of sustainably made textile. The finished pieces recontextualise something traditional onto queer bodies, simultaneously celebrating and radicalising custom.   During this period, I’ve been reflecting more so than ever on work that I truly value. I’ve always seen what I do as part of a lineage that I inherited, treasure and want to elaborate on, and I want to create work that expresses what it means to be part of a richly connected human life. I also really love and miss my grandpa.”   On how the pandemic has impacted her “I love how it’s given us the opportunity for more introspection and breathing space; the opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate caregivers, and to expose how society creates ruinous systems abusing and exploiting the underprivileged.   I think these are all amazing opportunities that make us refocus our value systems and create spiritually uplifting work. Personally, I’m reminded of the meaningfulness of garments and textiles that are rooted in the community, where people take precedence over commerce and superfluousness.”   On how she imagines the fashion industry to change post-pandemic “I have been hoping for a long time that fashion would slow its crazed commercialism and find new ways to grow more independently of capitalism. I hope people see it more as a genre and not business. Covid-19 has been exposing how much businesses and corporations have no connection to humanity.”     Photography Roxy Owan Styling Darrell Koh Model Raigo Law Allison M Low, artist beloved for her intricate and surreal illustrations.
The work “There’s the saying that the world is one’s oyster. As a young girl, it implied to me that there would be treasures for the taking. Inside an oyster, pearls materialise through a process that seems akin to some form of arcane magic.   I liked the idea of these mysterious inner workings, that produced only beautiful things; ultimately, things that are coveted for their inherent value. As an adult, I’d considered the inadvertent vulnerabilities that come with such a position.   There is a duality to being in possession of things that others desire, but in the end, it still seems a happier exchange to have something to offer the world instead, especially at a time like this. Perhaps art is my tiny offering.”   On how essential the arts is “Art will always be essential as a practice. Artists create for themselves just as much as they create for the public and artists will always find a way to share their work. Although social media is one of the avenues we use now, the traditional creative industry so to speak still plays a part in giving creatives a level of visibility in the commercial arena.   Furthermore, there are those who remain reliant on it to maintain a living to keep their practices going or to feed their families. Art in all its forms comforts and connects people. It is also a living creature on its own and will be shared one way or another.”     On how she imagines the art industry to change post-pandemic “I really can’t say what all this upheaval will bring on an industry scale at this time. There is a lot of uncertainty in the air on a global scale. What I do know is that many are maintaining connections via the Internet and that art is still being shared. We are all figuring things out, but so long as there’s a way to connect I think that things will be alright in the end.” Aik Beng Chia, photographer who archives everyday scenes in Singapore life, often using nothing more than his phone
The work “These photos were taken during the ongoing pandemic, which has really affected the way I take pictures. I used to roam freely on the streets all around Singapore, but now I mainly shoot when I’m out for essential purposes, such as supermarket runs in my neighbourhood. This is my answer to working within limits.” Jasper Tan, filmmaker who frequently works with Singapore’s most in-demand musicians
The work “This collage is made up of snippets from the music video of Stay Home – a single featuring 14 local artistes including Iman Fandi, Shye and Fariz Jabba that’s meant to offer a note of encouragement during this circuit breaker period. I directed it via Zoom by getting most of the artistes to position their phones like a webcam and sharing my art direction over it.   Each snippet would then get edited immediately after the musicians sent them over via Telegram or Google Drive (because the time I had to put this together was very short). At the start, I was worried about how the video would turn out since I wasn’t able to be present to film or check on lighting or angles. Through this project though, I’ve realised that anything is possible.”     On the disruption of current projects “Most of the projects that required me to do shoots physically were canceled. A music video in Korea, another in Malaysia, and some commercials. Which is sad! Two of the music videos were for artistes which I really wanted to work with, and it could have meant opening new doors for me in other countries.”     On how essential the arts is “Creativity requires you to create to grow, just like practice to a craft. A lot of us creatives have finally found a way to not only create but to earn from and make a living as well, and this pandemic and the inability to create might just be an end to many creatives here or affect them in ways that would be hard to get back to what they have built from before the pandemic.” Chuck Reyes, Manila-born, Paris-based fashion photographer who once called Singapore home and is a frequent collaborator with Female
The work “In the time that I’ve been in lockdown, I’ve thought a lot about my priorities in the work that I do, the nature and purpose of fashion photography and my place in it. In wanting to slow down my creative process and take more control over my image-making, I’ve recently returned to shooting on film – something that I’ve not done since the earliest days of my career.   With processing labs closed, I had to go back even further and shoot everything in black and white then develop the film myself, just as I did during my art school days. (Thankfully photo supply stores are still taking online orders for film.)   This portrait of my wife Philae was shot, processed, scanned and edited without leaving my apartment. There was no makeup artist, hairstylist or even clothes involved – we fashioned her look using things lying around the house: blankets, yoga mats. Is this a fashion image? Before Covid-19, that would be arguable. However if the true purpose of a fashion image is to offer insight into the lives of people at a specific time and place in history via what they’re wearing in the photo, the answer might be different.”     On how the pandemic has changed his creative approach “Sometimes as creative and a freelancer you feel the pressure to keep moving and keep creating, to compare your progression to your peers or to set unforgiving goals for yourself. When the entire world is literally put on hold and everyone, from the most successful to the most novice, is put in the exact same situation, it relieves some of that pressure. It gives us the luxury of time. It allows us to slow down and reflect, to have conversations with ourselves and with each other on what truly matters. That’s the silver lining that I found in all of this, and something I think that people in my industry didn’t know they needed.”     On how essential the arts is “Fashion and fashion image-making to me is the ultimate time capsule, the perfect snapshot of the facets of contemporary society. So much can be learned about the social, cultural, and economical concerns of a people based on what they choose to wear, and that’s important. The industry behind fashion and creativity is, for better or worse, what allows the people involved in it to make a living.” Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee, London-based artist, researcher and writer whose work explores power structures and alternative narratives
The work “This photograph is part of We’ve Got The Sun Under Our Skin (Lee’s ongoing series that aims to ‘disarm the colonial rhetoric echoed in the imperial literature of British Malaya’). It was taken in the winter, just after the rain when I was looking for a spot in the sun. There was a puddle the colour of milk tea – clearly full of nasties but it looked beautiful anyway. I placed the ball of jasmine flowers I had in the puddle and it stayed afloat just long enough for me to fire the shutter. I’m fond of a fleeting moment and maybe that’s also how I see this pandemic: a passing cloud.”     On the disruption of current projects, and working around it “I was working on showing an ongoing series at a photography festival. I was excited to show this body of work in a country that seemed distant from Singapore, Malaysia or any of our colonial past. It was definitely going to be interesting to see how the locals there would have read and reacted to the work. Sadly, it’s now been postponed until further notice but I’m crossing fingers that the chance will come again in the near future.”     On how essential the arts is “Art is a sensing tool and we need it more than ever in this mercurial time to help us feel our way around things. We need a more empathetic structure in the creative industry so that us practitioners can continue to understand and be critical of the environment we’re embedded in. We need to not only be able to access, but also feel that there is a safe, supported space to continue making work.” Benita Leong, photographer, artist and music enthusiast currently based in Toronto
The work “This is a collage of self-portraits distorted then pieced together in an analogue, experimental style. This pandemic and being confined to the limited space of my room for most hours have seen the divide between work and life blur, and life slipping closer into disarray. As my circadian rhythm becomes more erratic, the ritual of getting dressed for school and work becomes a personal indicator of time, place and my ideal mental state. When everything is in chaos and yearning for what is lost becomes natural, these routines become a grounding force in feeling in control – even if the performance of normalcy is only for an audience of one.”     On how the industry should evolve “I hope that the barriers to formal entry into the art industry will be lowered. It’s encouraging to see funds and grants by heavyweights and gatekeeping companies flow more generously during this period, specifically aiding gender and racial minorities. Residencies have also gone online with requisite fees discounted. With formal institutions forced into distance and online learning, it seems like most education has become independent. I hope then that the industry will see the value of non-formal qualifications, where artists are self-taught.”     On how essential the arts is “Art is essential in reflecting or being a conduit or subversive force for change in society. More than that, I think that during this social distancing or circuit breaker period, everyone is consuming art in a hyper way, where the only distraction when you’re not able to go outside or meet with friends is through interacting with different forms of media. I think if someone doesn’t consider art to be essential, I would challenge them to find relief or pleasure without it.”