It’s hotting up: Arts and Disability in Singapore and Indonesia

Photograph of a group of people posing for a photo at the Arts and Disability Forum

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, reports back from her recent trip to Singapore for Shaping Perspectives, Enabling Opportunities at the magnificent National Gallery Singapore and her follow-on visit to Jakarta, Indonesia

It’s always fascinating to see the world through a different lens. A number of UK-based, disabled artists and practitioners, along with myself, had that opportunity in Singapore at the Arts and Disability Forum 2016 as keynote presenters, workshop leaders and facilitators for an audience of attendees from the arts, education, social welfare and health sectors.

Organised in partnership by the British Council, the National Arts Council Singapore, the Singapore International Foundation and our hosts the National Gallery Singapore, the three-day Arts and Disability Forum aimed to “raise awareness on how the arts and culture can shape an inclusive society” and to “bridge the arts and disability sectors through cultural exchanges between Singapore and UK”. In addition to the honour of being asked to take part, it was a privilege for me to meet a number of Singaporean disabled artists – deaf musician Lily Goh, sculptor Victor Tan Wee Tar, who creates life sized wire figures, and multi-disciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin – and to be part of visioning the future here with them and key representatives from and Singapore International Foundation, Arts Council Singapore and British Council Singapore.

Among the many presentations and discussions we all shared, terminology was a hot topic, with Zoe Partington & Barbara Lisicki from Shape Arts exploring the social model perspective of disability and dancer-maker Claire Cunningham deftly mapping her journey to dance and to the ownership of the title ‘disabled artist’.

In my keynote I explored what underpins Unlimited – our commitment to the social model and to a ‘rights not charity’ approach – highlighting the work of both artists and allies in pushing forwards for social change through the arts. I lead a quick summation session about what people here feel needs to change and was delighted to find that altering mind-sets came top of the list.

After three productive days in Singapore it was off to Indonesia, where I spent a couple of days speaking with young disabled people, artists and arts and welfare organisations. On the first day, I described Unlimited and the work that artists are creating in the UK; in the ensuing discussions a disheartening general feeling emerged that, for Indonesia, such things are impossible – that for a disabled person to dream of being an artist is unrealistic and unattainable. It was a sobering day for me, to confront such negative perspectives within young disabled people themselves.

And yet, as we talked, examples emerged – a deaf dance troupe in Bali, a blind pianist, a visual artist who experiences mental health issues, a deaf photographer who has reached the finals in a national mainstream photographic challenge… All of these examples were incredibly encouraging and spurred us on with the belief that real change is possible. On the second day, we heard from over 18 artists, projects and programmes that were either working with disabled people as artists, or aspired to do so, and by the end of the day the atmosphere had become electrified with positivity and ambition.

My journey seems to have timed perfectly as, throughout 2016 to 2018, the UK and Indonesia will commence a programme of joint arts interventions and I’m delighted to report that, on the page promoting these events, the British Council in Indonesia’s website now carries this line: ‘Across all our programmes, we’ll prioritise the future potential of young artists and producers and the creative potential of digital technologies. And we’ll be creative in making sure that disabled artists and audiences play a full role’ – we at Unlimited would be particularly pleased to hear from disabled artists working in digital, music, fashion and documentary who might want an introduction.

Much of East Asia is ripe with possibilities for exchanges and collaborations over the next few years, as evidenced by the recent signings of agreements between the UK and Korea. Now that Unlimited has international commissioning funds through our exciting new programme Unlimited International, we are in a strong place to partner on other initiatives and ensure both access and representation. Things are heating up!

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