“Looking at ‘d’ art: Fab or fad?”
I have a disability; in fact, it’s “official”, as evinced by my transport concession card with the SG Enable logo on it. For years, I held an editorial job; in fact, I worked on fiction and poetry books, which presumably pinned me squarely in the literary arts field. Yet I do not remember having ever encountered or entertained the notion of “disability arts” until last year. In fact, I had never thought about it.
So am I part of the disability arts community? How is disability arts different from mainstream arts anyway? What value can disabled artists bring to the larger arts community? Is there a disability arts movement in Singapore in the first place? Well, I don’t really know. Still, after giving it some thought, let me discuss disability arts as a layperson, albeit one who has dipped various toes into assorted arts puddles—as a writer, editor, dramaturg and photographer.
I started off by asking myself: Who are the disabled artistic people I know of? The average person in the street and Mandopop fans—like me—would probably think of Kelvin Tan. Chen Weilian (as he is better known to said fans) is a blind singer who won a nationwide singing contest, released bestselling albums and has sung a National Day theme song. Some would cite See Toh Sheng Jie, the student with autism who designed the famous ‘dino pouch’ carried by Mrs Lee Hsien Loong during a state visit to the White House. Images of Mrs Lee carrying the pouch subsequently went viral on social media, sparking a buying spree for the product.
<Music video of Kelvin Tan, performing Treasure Every Moment, a special collaboration with Dick Lee for National Day 2013>
What they share in common is the relatively high profiles they attained and the ensuing public recognition. Through my involvement in advocacy, I came to know about Singaporeans with disabilities who have attained acclaim as creative artists of international standing—Chng Seok Tin who is blind and a Cultural Medallion awardee for her contributions to the arts in various media; and pianist Azariah Tan who is profoundly deaf and obtained a Doctorate of Musical Arts to go with numerous performing awards. Theatre goers in the know and the local Deaf community would also be able to cite Ramesh Meyyappan, the performance artiste who has won awards, toured internationally and had a National Day Parade showcase. But this handful aside, I drew a blank. And I doubt that most people would fare any better.
<Interview with Ramesh Meyyappan for the Edinburgh Showcase 2015, where he explains the significance of his performance, “Butterfly”>
However, with the mushrooming of disability and art-related events and programmes in Singapore in the past couple of years, the media has given greater prominence to disability issues, leading to greater public consciousness about them. Disability has come to possess positive connotations even morphing into a sort of hipster badge; witness how people unabashedly go, “Oh, I think I may be a bit autistic” to explain their behavioural quirks. This phenomenon is propelled, in part, by mainstream pop culture where disabled people are heroes or anti-heroes (we love to root for). Movies, books and plays about disabled protagonists have started to take a progressive and enlightened slant. Better still, some have tried to approach the subject of disability in a more matter-of-fact manner, as a natural part of lives both exceptional and ordinary.
Notable examples include the movies The Theory of Everything, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and A Quiet Place. Equally noteworthy is their box office prowess. And X-Men’s Professor Xavier may have brought more than a few folks around to the idea that whizzing around in a wheelchair is supremely cool. Fellow advocate Jorain Ng has highlighted that most wonderful (non)portrayal of disability by the one-armed Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road:
“Her disability is … never a plot device. There is no tragic backstory regarding her disability, and her character is not used to inspire or motivate audience. In fact, her disability is never explained. We do not even know how or when she acquired her disability. The movie doesn’t want us to focus on her disability. They treat her disability as just another kind of difference—something I find really refreshing.”[i]
Singapore has also seen successful mainstream theatre productions like Pangdemonium’s Tribes and Falling featuring Deaf and autistic characters respectively. We also see an increasing number of sign language-interpreted talks at literary festivals, captioned plays expressly for the ‘Deaf and Hard of hearing’, sensory-friendly performances as well as generous discounts (or even free entry) for the disabled—developments unheard of just three or four years ago. This, however, is not to sweep under the carpet problematic cases of non-disabled people being cast to play disabled characters. Citing these positive instances serve more as an overview of the current situation on the visibility and portrayal of disability in the arts scene.
Big hitters have stepped up to the plate too. The past two editions of the Arts & Disability Forum saw the National Arts Council, British Council and Singapore International Foundation getting involved. The forums featured keynote speeches by arts practitioners with disabilities from the United Kingdom, as well as disability art panels and workshops. This year has been an especially high point. Very Special Arts (VSA) Singapore, an arts organisation for people with disabilities, hosted the True Colours Festival in which disabled artistes and performers took centre stage in an extravaganza of a concert. Billed as a show by and for disabled dancers, singers, musicians and actors, they were able to bask in the limelight for a change, on a stage to call their own. A disability-led theatre production, And Suddenly I Disappear: the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, written by disabled UK playwright Kaite O’Reilly and starring local disabled actors performed to sold-out audiences over a weekend in May. I myself was involved in the exploratory research workshops last year leading up to the production of the ‘d’ Monologues. The workshops provided safe spaces for participants to talk about what had been a taboo subject – their disabilities and their complex feelings including shame, anger, nonchalance and pride. The articulation of these disabled experiences also served as an important launching point for the production.
<And Suddenly I Disappear: the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, a Disability-led theatre production>
Yet such upbeat developments might not actually indicate the presence of a bona fide disability arts scene here. Colin Barnes provides a helpful definition of Disability Arts:
“…the Disability Arts Movement is not simply about disabled people obtaining access to the mainstream of artistic consumption and production. Nor is it about simply expressing the individual experiences of living with or coming to terms with an accredited impairment. Disability art is the development of shared cultural meanings and collective expression of the experience of disability and struggle. It entails using art to expose the discrimination and prejudice disabled people face, and to generate group consciousness and solidarity. For a growing number of people around the world, the main forum for positive cultural representations of the disability experience is only located within the context of Disability Arts.”[ii]
Weighty ideals and goals are mentioned: Developing shared cultural meanings and collective expression; exposing discrimination and prejudice against disabled people; generating group consciousness and solidarity. To me, art for disabled people in Singapore has not delved into these aspects. Instead, for a long time, it has focussed on the therapeutic or rehabilitative benefits of art-making. The inclination of society at large is to look at disabled persons through tinted prisms—as medical conditions or deficiencies, whether intellectual, cognitive, physical or sensory.
Another common perception of disabled people is encapsulated in the phrase used to describe us: “the less fortunate”. Not surprisingly, this latter view often stems from the former. Hence the lingering notion that the quality of art produced by disabled persons is necessarily inferior to that of non-disabled peers. The purpose of such art, at least for those publicly shown or sold, appears to be concerned about raising awareness and funds—rather than appreciating their intrinsic qualities. The result is that disability art hence ends up in a charity ghetto, creating yet another stereotype of disability. In addition, those with visible or publicised disabilities who have made a mark in their respective fields and on their own steam are usually held up as “inspirations” who “bravely overcome” their disabilities “in spite of” their “challenges”. The focus in such cases skews towards the novelty of the artist having a disability and the alleged courage and grit on display.
Coming back to the True Colours Festival, we might question whether it was a commendable and much-needed showcase of disability arts, or more of a sameness of excluding the disabled in subtle but important ways. After all, it was not a disability-led event; rather, it was conceived, organised and ran by the non-disabled and by organisations in which non-disabled people dominated. Was the absence of disabled representation simply due to the lack of disabled people with the necessary skills, connections and expertise? Could it have been more than this?
<Organisers of True Colours, explaining their motivations during the press conference of the True Colours Festival 2018>
Having said that, there are glimmers of light ahead—intriguing explorations and promising beginnings, perhaps even the emergence of disability arts in Singapore. Besides the disability-led ‘d’ Monologues, one illuminating instance of how the disability experience can enrich the arts came in Issy X Evan, which I caught at this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts. A musical-visual art installation conceived by the artist Ferry and performed by Deaf photographer Isabelle Lim and musician Evan Low, it featured wooden platform chairs upon which audience members lie while donning ear mufflers and watch a short film on a giant screen overhead. Each chair “enables the transmission of sound frequencies into physical vibrations” and is designed from the perspective of Lim’s everyday life in which she ‘sees’ sounds in the form of vibrations—such as pattering raindrops, a clattering trolley, the rumbling of MRT trains.[iii] For the hearing audience, it was a one-of-a-kind, tactile experience of deafness, much-needed in expanding minds and understanding. Can we have more of such, please?
Disability-led arts of this quality allow us to uncover new narratives which were previously buried under the baggage of ‘disability arts as charity’. It allows us to see how disabled artists and disability arts are essentially the same as arts by other communities and groups, in that they question our taken-for-granted notions about the nature and experience of being human. Artists draw from both external influences and life experiences; disabled artists are no exception. Having a disability (or multiple disabilities) can either be integral or incidental to the artists’ works. What a disabled artist can potentially bring on board is something new and fresh, something unique and fascinating which come from a (sometimes literally) different eye, ear, mind or place.
A person with disability who is born with or grows up with the condition might come to regard it as their identity, akin to how certain artists come to identify themselves in terms of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Members of these minority or marginalised groups—a category disabled people fall into—also carry with them the trauma of oppression and discrimination. Some embark on a journey of self-discovery and affirmation, and develop a sense of pride in their self-identity. Their desire to express this or to bring about change gives particular power and purpose—even beauty—to their works. Likewise for artists who tap into their experiences as disabled people to offer unique inputs and bring new insights to the stage, the canvas, the written word.
At the same time, not all disabled artists may wish to be known for their disability, nor for their works to be about their disability, even when what they do is informed or honed by their lived experiences of disability. Meyyappan articulated it this way:
“I’m proud to be Deaf. However, I try to avoid having my work being labelled as Deaf work. I don’t think we should put any labels on anyone’s work and hope we look at the artistic merits—the creativity rather than the disability.”[iv]
As with any minority group, we need to foster a culture of respect towards their lived experiences and ways of expressing it. In this case, is it too much to ask that disability arts be taken seriously and to take disabled artists at face value, on their own terms and as equals of their non-disabled peers? Whether they are mediocre or outstanding, disabled artists are, in the end, the works of disabled artists should be evaluated no differently from any other.
Disabled people still face obstacles and the barriers for them are in various ways more formidable and harder to overcome—the paucity of access, education and exposure to the arts. More can be done, too, to develop disabled talents in the arts community. The relative lack of local disabled artists as keynote and workshop speakers at successive editions of the Arts & Disability Forum is telling.
What we now have is a foothold chiselled out of increasing public and community awareness, increasing opportunities, and a growing realisation that we disabled people have stories to share and an equal right to be seen, heard and be out there—as artists in our own right and as equal, worthy representatives of a common humanity. I am grateful for these openings, and I am hopeful there are more to come.
Alvan Yap has been an educator, writer and editor for 16 years. His stint as a special education teacher included a year-long overseas assignment with the Singapore International Foundation. Alvan also worked as an advocate with the Disabled People’s Association and was deputy director of the Singapore Association for the Deaf.