Heart to Art

Published on 26 November 2017

Award-winning visual artist Alecia Neo believes in a people-centred and socially engaged approach to art.

By Melanie Lee

When 31-year-old Alecia Neo was studying at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media specialising in photography, she enjoyed how the camera gave her the “perfect excuse” to get up-close to people and issues she wanted to engage in.

In 2011, Neo extended her artistic practice to doing a site-specific installation titled Villa Alicia at the then soon-to-be-demolished home of Dr Nalla Tan, where members of the public became acquainted with Dr Tan’s societal contributions to women and her battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I began to realise that the real work was having people meet Dr Tan’s family and having a dialogue with family members about her legacy. Sure, the photographs and soundscapes we installed in the house were great, but without that dialogue, art becomes meaningless,” Neo recalls.

After that, Neo went for a four-month art residency at Università delle Idee (University of Ideas) in Italy, where she was inspired by the idea that art can be used for social transformation. When she returned to Singapore, she set up Brack, a platform for socially engaged art and community. She also started working on a long-term project with the visually impaired community titled Unseen: Constellations.

Last year, Neo received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award, the highest award for young art practitioners aged 35 years and below. However, she remains humble about this achievement, and focuses more on the hard-hitting lessons she learned from working on ambitious projects such as Unseen: Constellations.

“There’s this notion that socially engaged art is about serving the community. But it’s a two-way relationship. As artists, we would always have our own agendas, and it’s important to be clear to the community what those agendas are,” she muses. “At the same time, the artist has to consider the community’s agenda, and take into account that the community might not want to do things the artist’s way all the time.”

Photo: Alecia Neo
Photo: Alecia Neo

This year, Neo was commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival to produce a series of photographs and a four-minute video revolving around the festival theme ‘Aram’ (a Tamil word for doing good). Neo chose to feature performances of four people with compelling personal stories of overcoming challenging and uncontrollable circumstances, and began to see the parallels between this project and her earlier works.

“I realise it’s always been about self-knowledge. How do you balance or regulate yourself when the world is so complex? Where can you find that space to reset and be healed?”

Visit www.alecianeo.com for more on Alecia Neo’s work.

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