Singapore Youth Award Finalist - Alecia Neo

Alecia Neo

Founder and Director, Unseen Art; Co-founder, Brack

A promising young creative talent, Alecia Neo believes in the power of art to bring people together and make a difference.

Does Alecia’s story inspire you? Tell us why!

When you talk about “artistic installations” or “multi-disciplinary art”, what often comes to mind are museums and sleek galleries peopled by a well-heeled crowd. But when you speak to artist Alecia Neo, she’ll tell you art is also a window into issues like poverty, marginalisation and social inequality — as well as a platform to address them.

Alecia, a winner of the National Arts Council’s 2016 Young Artist Award (the country’s top arts accolade for those aged 35 and under), is a passionate believer in art as a force for social change and progress in Singapore. “I’m interested in shining a spotlight on issues that people probably know are there but don’t want to discuss or face them because it’s inconvenient,” says the 33-year-old graduate of Nanyang Technological University’s fine arts programme.

MAKING THE ‘INVISIBLE’ VISIBLE

Alecia’s desire to address social inequality and effect change in the community in Singapore didn’t come to her overnight. It was a slow, gradual process that stemmed from her own family background and observations of people around her as she was growing up. As the middle child in a working-class family, Alecia was made aware of the struggles faced by her father at an early age. As a teen, she watched how her parents dutifully took on the role of caregivers for family members and witnessed the strain it put on them. She also saw first-hand the effects of mental health issues, stress and isolation on others close to her as they struggled to cope. “Seeing what went on around me taught me a lot about inequality and what that can do to a person and his or her choices,” she says. “Some people really have to fight very hard to make something of their lives with what was dealt them.”

While learning photography as part of her course at university, she turned her lens on human-centric subjects, creating portraits of the underprivileged and HDB-dwellers isolated from mainstream society. “There’s another side to how people live in Singapore. I wanted to expose audiences in the gallery world to that,” she explains. It’s a creed that Alecia believes in, and one she hopes more young artists will be inspired by. You can see it in her community-based art projects, like the recently-concluded Both Sides, Now installation, which was open to the public and took place at an HDB void deck in Telok Blangah. Comprising works by Alecia and other artists together with the block’s residents, the project focused on the lives of the neighbourhood’s old folks and what it means to live well. “We work in small ways, through intimate interactions, but I think that makes it more accessible. Once you really start to hear someone’s story, there’s no way you can dismiss the person anymore. To put a human face on issues — that’s what our projects are trying to do,” she says.

Last year, she developed an art project called Between Earth and Sky over the course of a year with caregivers of loved ones with mental illness, highlighting the weight they carry. The final artwork (a mix of videos, and an installation of kites) was shown at four venues, including the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film and at the inaugural Singapore Mental Health Film Festival this year. “Human relationships have been an anchor for my work because I feel so inspired by situations I observe around me. I just can’t help but make them part of my [creative] process. Maybe it’s my way of trying to understand our world,” she says.

CREATING SUPPORTIVE SPACES

For youths who want to help bring about social change in Singapore, Alecia says a great way to start is to learn the ropes from experienced practitioners. “They can first identify a social issue they are concerned about and look for existing platforms or organisations to volunteer with. No effort is too small. In time, you will learn how different groups organise themselves and seek out resources, gain a network and supportive community to call your own, and start developing your own projects.”

Through volunteering and contributing to causes that benefit others, Alecia also believes young artists can learn to identify gaps where art can inspire, offer fresh perspectives and bridge differences in Singapore. “It’s good if youths can work with non-mainstream groups and bring them into the centre of our culture. We may see the world differently due to different backgrounds and social strata, but we share common experiences like having dreams, hope, pain and loss. Focusing on how we connect with one another as human beings is an effective way to bring people together.”

Her message to young people is simple. “Listen deeply and be humble. You don’t have to be an expert to make a difference, but you should do your homework. We don’t always have the right answers and often we will make mistakes which can make you feel defeated. But this work is a marathon, a constant work-in-progress. The journey is a great opportunity to understand your own biases and how you can align your personal values with the way you choose to live.”

Ultimately, she hopes to make a difference through her art, to create physical or temporary spaces where people young and old in Singapore can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and to support one another. She says: “I’m motivated by the possibilities of changing the way people live and think about issues surrounding us. Artistic collaborations and interventions have the potential to shift our perspectives by opening up spaces to reflect, negotiate and question.” In her view, this is crucial for the well-being of the nation. “In a society where there are lots of restrictions and expectations placed on us, there needs to be spaces where people can learn to be accepting of others and themselves,” she says.

Does Alecia’s story inspire you?
Tell us why!