Angela Tan and John Tung on the Intersection of Art and Disability – S.E.A. Focus

Angela Tan and John Tung on the Intersection of Art and Disability

On ART:DIS’s initiatives, working with neurodivergent artists, and what inclusivity entails

Angela Tan is Executive Director at ART:DIS, a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating learning and livelihood opportunities in the arts for persons with disabilities. Angela has a background in the arts, with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and History of Art from Goldsmiths, London, as well as more than a decade of experience at the National Arts Council, Singapore.

John Tung is a curator with extensive experience through his work formerly as a Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum and numerous other independent engagements including for Singapore International Photography Festival, the Open House programme ‘For the House; Against the House’ and the upcoming S.E.A. Focus 2024 ‘Serial and Massively Parallel’. Recently, John curated ART:DIS’s 30th Anniversary exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ and was on the judging panel for the inaugural UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize.

Team ART:DIS. Image courtesy of ART:DIS

Angela, what motivated you to join ART:DIS? And has your perception of the disability sector changed since?

Angela Tan (AT): Part of me was excited about shaping the next development phase of ART:DIS. I felt it was important to embed the organisation more deeply in the local arts ecosystem, not just as a community organisation but one that was serious about developing the artistic excellence and representation of artists with disabilities in Singapore. 

My perception of the disability sector has not changed since I joined. What has changed is the clarity and compounded urgency to shift the way the art world and its constructs perceive and position artists with disabilities, and the values they attribute to them. 

Emerging artist Abraham Koh with his mentor artist Tang Ling Nah. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

ART:DIS has a tiered programme, which includes an Emerging Artist level launched in 2022. Could you talk about the enrolment process and the types of mentorship experience offered?

AT: Just like mainstream artists, our young artists, who are mostly neurodivergent, have the same desire and aspiration to excel and expand in their practice. The tiered programme allows us to support them at various stages of their artistic practice development, including those who wish to develop professional careers as artists. The emerging artist programme was newly introduced, and is based on a bespoke industry mentorship approach where artists are matched one-on-one to mentors who are practising artists or curators. Artists are selected through a public open call.

‘A Piece of Home’, 2023, exhibition view at Objectifs, Singapore. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Curated by John Tung, the exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ is a highlight of ART:DIS’s 30th anniversary celebrations. What are the qualities/ criterion ART:DIS looks out for when choosing the curator to work with?

AT: This is not our first project working with an external curator, but contextually, it was quite rare to do so in the past. However, going forward, we hope to involve more curators in our exhibitions. It is critical that the curator we work with is excited about the artists and their works, as well as how they add a different dimension and texture to what is being presented in our contemporary art landscape.

Linocut prints by young artist Christian Tan. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

John, tell us about your experience working with ART:DIS and the artists on ‘A Piece of Home’ (2023).

John Tung (JT): The curation process of ‘A Piece of Home’ was the first time I had the privilege of working with neurodivergent artists or artists with disabilities. Having the opportunity to speak with all the artists about their work and practices, I was taken aback by the outpouring of honesty and authenticity that drove their creations, as well as the breadth of their imagination. In this respect, I also strove to embody their struggles, beliefs, and artistic triumphs in the selection and curation of the exhibition. 

Young artists Joshua Tang and Kenneth Lee, in conversation with curator John Tung. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Are there anecdotes you can share about the process of organising ‘A Piece of Home’ as well as responses from the public?

AT: Organising “A Piece of Home” at the Objectifs, which is an independent art space, shifted the dynamics of how one encounters the work of an artist with disabilities. I recall conversations with John, and Suzanna Low, my exhibitions head, where we spoke about intentionally presenting the artworks in a way that borrows visual cues of the institutional white cube, and not position the exhibition as a “community” showcase. It is important that the works of these young artists, though still in training, are treated seriously.

JT: To be frank, I presumed I would be unequipped to take on the curation initially. In fact, one of my first questions to Angela was whether the organisation would be able to provide me with training to learn to better communicate with these individuals. My question was met with an outburst of laughter, followed by “no training necessary”. I met with the artists with a genuine curiosity about their artistic creations, and that alone was sufficient in developing a deeper understanding about their works. 

With respect to how different the experience was, it was entirely uneventful. Uneventful in the best way possible, as the show developed smoothly. All of the artists and everyone on the ART:DIS team worked closely to realise the vision we had of the exhibition, and I am glad it came to fruition. 

Isaac Tan, Winner of the Emerging Artist category at the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Another new initiative is the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize, which is a platform to recognise artists with disabilities in Singapore. Could you talk about the desired impact of this prize?

AT: The UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize had a simple intent, which was to recognise and raise public visibility of artists with disabilities in our cultural landscape. Some might argue this further focuses on their disability instead of their practice, and could pigeonhole them. Instead, I see it as a much needed intervention for now. Who knows, perhaps one day we would no longer need a prize like this as our cultural scene and society progresses.

‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures’ by Chng Seok Tin, 2022, exhibition view at artcommune gallery. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

In 2022, ART:DIS and artcommune gallery presented ‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures by Chng Seok Tin’, an exhibition that features works made over four decades in the artist’s career. How did this project come about?

AT: Seok Tin had always been a constant presence at ART:DIS, then known as Very Special Arts. She participated in our exhibitions and events, and had a soft spot for the younger artists. She was an outstanding artist and somewhat an emblem that your disability is not a limit to your practice. In fact, as part of her legacy, her estate had set up an Education Fund for aspiring young artists with disabilities which supports the Emerging Artist programme.

In your opinion, what does inclusivity and accessibility entail? And what are the most impactful steps the arts community can take to work towards greater inclusivity?

AT: Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now which is great progress but what should be considered in equal measure is the representation of their voices, their bodies in our mainstream exhibitions and cultural spaces. What is the point of providing access to exhibitions for the disability community if the content they see does not reflect them?

We start by including artists with disabilities in shows, collaborating with them, and stop seeing them as the community that we must do good for. They have equal parts to contribute to a more diverse arts ecosystem, as contributors, not as receivers of goodwill.

JT: I am quite certain that the disability label progressively fades away as an artist gains increasing prominence. After all, numerous established artists, Yayoi Kusama for instance, are not branded as such. I firmly believe that our approach to evaluating artworks should be uniform, albeit in accordance with our own rubrics. Personally, I give great emphasis to authenticity, which these artists have no lack of. Concessions granted, owing to “disability”, are in my opinion a disservice to the amazing stories, creative struggles, and heartfelt emotions these works embody. There is an inherent goodness in these works that we need to re-train our eyes to see. 

John Tung with the three artists, Kenneth Lee, Fern Wong and Isabelle Lim (from left to right), who will be part of the group exhibition ‘Turning Points’ in January 2024. Image courtesy of ARTI:DIS.

John, in light of the upcoming edition of S.E.A. Focus that you are curating, how do you think inclusivity in visual arts might evolve in an increasingly digital age?

JT: I have been pessimistic about this increasingly digital age.  Amongst other things, with the rise of social media, goodness seems to be determined by popular opinion/likes/upvotes. Undoubtedly, the emergence of these platforms is accelerating the dispersion of information and heightening visibility of these artists, but it also means that engagement becomes highly mediated and often pared down or truncated. We already do not spend enough time in front of a single work of art in a museum setting. How much attention does an image get from us amidst a doom-scrolling session?

The fact that more of such works are seen is a good thing, but it will need to be complemented by a growth in interactions with the actual works as well.