The Changi Women’s Prison Artist Mentor programme is an annual collaboration between the charity Yellow Ribbon Project and Singapore Art Museum, and I was honoured to be invited as this years mentor.
Artwork example from the mentees at Changi Women’s Prison Artist Mentor Programme
Throughout my practice, I have been fascinated by people’s stories, social memory and oral history. There is a warmth and kinship in connecting with people, hearing their stories and knowing that it took a lot of courage to talk about painful or life-changing experiences close to their heart. To understand another person’s existence, their joys, fears and learnings, forms an inherent and essential part of my artistic approach. Which is why the opportunity to take on the role of a mentor in the Art Programme at Changi Women’s Prison is both special and valuable to my creative development.
I came to realise that the fundamental element that made the workshop’s success possible is trust. In ourselves, and in others. Without preconception or judgement, these students are treated like any other student in my workshops. In turn they respond with enthusiasm, excitement, chatter, confidence and belief. As their skills & confidence grow, the classes become increasingly meaningful to us all.
Several of my mentees informed me early on that they were nervous, unconfident, worried that they would not be good enough. They were very open about how they thought they would fail me, and some admitted that they had never had any formal schooling so were not confident that they would be able to listen and learn. However, as the workshop went on the ladies started to trust that art is not scary; they gained more confidence in themselves, and in me.
I had a really wonderful breakthrough moment with a student who I could tell was not ready to trust me yet. She had isolated herself on a separate table to the rest, so I offered her my spot. She refused, saying she liked being on her own. I asked her if she would like a chair at her own desk and I offered her mine. At this moment I saw a smile, and later that lesson she asked me to call her by her first name instead of her formal surname. I knew this was a gesture that she was letting me in.
Much later, talking to an ex-inmate, I learned that even having chairs in the art room is a privilege. In most situations – eating lunch, doing work, in their rooms – the prisoners do not have chairs and must squat or sit on the floor.