Alumni in the arts find meaning in chasing their dreams

7 June 2019

By Kevin Low


“A young teenage participant shared that when she saw herself reflected in the mirrored surfaces of Robert Morris’ ‘Untitled’ (four mirrored cubes), she felt like she was the artwork, which made her feel worthy,” said Ms Tan Heng Yeng (Class of 2018). “That was a particularly moving moment for me.”

Ms Tan is one of many Yale-NUS College alumni who are striking out in Singapore’s arts sector. She works with the National Gallery Singapore’s Community & Access team, which is dedicated to making the museum as inclusive a space as possible for people of all identities, such as people from differently-abled populations and lower-income families, migrant workers and isolated senior citizens. She also holds a secondary portfolio in youth engagement, developing progressive youth-led initiatives to empower young people to craft their own experiences at the Gallery that are meaningful and relevant to them.

“I believe deeply in the value of the arts for creating a more humane, just, and non-violent world.”  Image by Yale-NUS College. 

“A recent programme that I worked on was the Silent Tour for the Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. special exhibition,” she said, recounting a tour format which flipped the model of a conventional art museum tour: participants had the opportunity to view the artworks in silence, after the Gallery’s normal opening hours. “We invited caregivers to enjoy the experience as a therapeutic space of solidarity; and invited youth from children’s homes to explore visual art as a medium of self-expression and to cultivate active listening, confidence, and an understanding of subjectivities,” she said.

A recipient of the Singapore-Industry Scholarship (SgIS), Ms Tan chose to join the newly established Community & Access team because its directive spoke keenly to the big-picture goal she had for herself: working towards a more socially-just and equitable society. “It’s important to me to be working in the service of the marginalised and underserved,” she said. “It’s one of the ways I hope to hold myself accountable to the many privileges I’ve been arbitrarily born into and enjoyed thus far.”

Ms Tan said that the liberal arts education at Yale-NUS helped her be better able to perceive and understand the structural inequities prevalent in our social institutions. “The classroom education I received and the amazing humans I had the privilege of being surrounded by at Yale-NUS played a huge part in how I’ve come to understand the injustice in the world as a structural phenomenon,” she said, “and inspired me to do my part in shifting the needle towards greater equity.”

Since graduating from Yale-NUS College, Mr Jevon Chandra (Class of 2017) has been working as a freelance artist: “That’s the least inaccurate way I would describe it,” he said. He either makes his own works, by conceptualising and executing his own ideas; or helps others make their works by being in involved in the execution phase, such as composing or writing as part of another person’s work.

In the past two years, Mr Chandra has produced or contributed to multiple works. Of note was his capstone project, which was a finalist for the Celeste Prize 2017, an award organised by the Celeste Network, an international arts community. Mr Chandra had the opportunity to bring his work on exhibition in Oxo Tower in London, where the final round of judging was held. Titled [i carry, Mr Chandra’s performance-installation reacted to the movements of elevators in an urban compound over a 24-hour period, inviting viewers to consider the ordinary actors, the people and processes, which routine has rendered invisible.

“The act of creating, as one gets to do often in the arts, is quite cool in and of itself.” Image provided by Mr Jevon Chandra.

Mr Chandra initially chose the freelancer path because he wanted to experience art-making from its many angles – not just in creative roles but also in administrative ones. “I get a taste of writing, producing, researching, and managing, and I’ve learnt a lot,” he said. “And learning is valuable because it helps me find out not only what is meaningful to me, but also what is meaningful for others as well.”

Freelancing is not without its challenges, however – Mr Chandra said that he has difficulty grappling with his own limits and imperfections. “I want to be honest with my work but I only have so much heart; I want to be polished in my offerings but I only have so much skill; I really, really want to do my best but I only have so much strength,” he said.

Mr Chandra credits Yale-NUS for nurturing in him a healthy sense of curiosity. “Being curious keeps me moving forward,” he said. “Soon after graduating, I was told that art, if properly considered, is a lifetime pursuit. It is only now, very slowly, that I am getting a faint inkling of what that means.”

For the past few months, Mr Ziyad bin Ahmad Bagharib (Class of 2018) has been a full-time apprentice carpenter at Reno Scout Pte Ltd, a company that serves as the main contractor for both residential and commercial renovation projects. He is tasked with constructing custom-built furniture from scratch, from taking measurements and preparing drawings, to procuring the necessary materials and fabricating it in the workshop before finally installing it on site.

“I started this job with zero experience and basically zero knowledge of carpentry. I mean, I’ve watched a few YouTube videos,” he said, laughing. Mr Ziyad aims to build his own house in a forest one day, and he thought this role would be a good first step on the path to that goal. “I had long considered this a kind of pipe dream. But after doing some proper research, it began to feel both much more achievable and much more appealing to me.”

Mr Ziyad has a very specific moment in the construction process which he enjoys the most: the point at which he uses the table saw to cut all the wood that is required for the main structure of the final work. “It’s really beautiful to see something that only existed in your head suddenly appear in front of you,” he said. “There’s still a very long process of assembly that follows, but that initial birth of the workpiece is always immensely gratifying.”

“Whenever my mentor asks me if I’m feeling ready to try something new, I never say no.” Image provided by Mr Ziyad bin Ahmad Bagharib.

As he is new to this line of work, Mr Ziyad said that trying something for the first time is still a daily affair. Naturally, he makes mistakes every day, which he said could be very demoralising. “I guess that’s been the biggest challenge so far: balancing the need to learn quickly and do things well, with the need to be patient and realistic about what I can accomplish at my current level,” he said.

It was the people he met at Yale-NUS which inspired Mr Ziyad to pursue carpentry. “At Yale-NUS, I was surrounded by people who embodied an attitude of ‘go je, don’t scared’ [Malay/English colloquialism: just go for it, don’t be afraid],” he said. “I think that spirit – daring to get things done even if you’ve never done them before – definitely continues to fuel my desire to hone this craft.”

“That house in the forest is looking closer and closer each day,” he added.