Ex-S’pore prisoners use art to give back to the community and heal their souls


The Routes art exhibition features artwork by former incarcerated people in Singapore. (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

SINGAPORE — A recent art exhibition titled ‘Routes’, organized by the Global Cultural Alliance (GCA), showcased the work of previously incarcerated artists. These emerging talents are all part of Canvas, a support group providing training to former inmates of the Visual Arts Hub (VAH) at Changi Prison Complex.

The idea behind the exhibition was to show another side of those who found themselves in Singapore’s penal system and to help break down social barriers by showing how art can help improve mental health. Canvas mentors and volunteers run a variety of art-based programs to help artists after they are released from prison so they can ultimately give back to the wider community.

“We started in 2019 as a support group for budding artists who trained at the Visual Arts Hub at Changi Prison Complex. This exhibition is a connection between art and life,” says artist Barry Yeow, co-founder of Canvas and an artist-mentor for the group.

“The artworks created both show how art has played a transformative role for each of the individual artists as well as how their own life experience has resulted in creations that are distinct and open up another world of experiences for the viewer.”

Latiff's Nature's Way was featured in the Routes <a class=art exhibition. (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/GtJ2d4jx248R42v6mvl6nw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MA–/https://s.yimg.com/os/creatr-uploaded-images/2022-01/cfc81dc0-776a-11ec-bf3c-9428cd3f1b68″/>

Latiff’s Nature’s Way was featured in the Routes art exhibition. (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

Art is my passion

One of the featured artists, Latiff, always wanted to be an artist. Art has been a recurring theme despite his personal setbacks in his life.

“Art is my passion, so I have always tried to develop myself by taking art classes or [going to] the library, an art exhibition or a museum or in the countryside to see more established or renowned artists,” explains the painter.

Art is so important to him that it certainly helped him cope with being a previously incarcerated person.

“It’s a struggle, but the art requires me to stay calm to deal with my issues,” says Latiff. “I tell myself that my RECOVERY has to come first so that everything I love in life doesn’t come last.”

Since returning to the art world, Latiff has exhibited her work in libraries, local art shows and museums. In 2019, he launched his first collection, ‘Tifera Art Gallery Exhibition’ themed ‘Fearful to Fearless’ at Oxley Bizhub. Additionally, he contributed a painting for the Yellow Ribbon Art Project at the School of the Arts (SOTA).

The Routes art exhibition features artwork by former incarcerated people in Singapore.  (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

The Routes art exhibition features artwork by former incarcerated people in Singapore. (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

Art is a form of outlet

Ridhuan has always enjoyed working creatively with his hands. A self-taught sculptor and ceramist, Ridhuan had to overcome several difficulties in his life, including being an introvert with speech impediments. He is motivated by the work of Pablo Picasso and that of the German artist and theorist Joseph Beuys.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people who can draw and create or build functional things from a very young age. And that led me to try making art when I was in school where they have a program for that,” says Ridhuan.

“But I guess I unconsciously started creating art when I was playing with modeling clay and merging it into figurines to create custom toys for myself when I was a kid.”

According to Ridhuan, art has no boundaries in terms of materials; he works with paint, clay, industrial components and recycled materials.

The Routes art exhibition features artwork by former incarcerated people in Singapore.  (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

The Routes art exhibition features artwork by former incarcerated people in Singapore. (PHOTO: Global Cultural Alliance)

“First of all, art is a form of an outlet. Allowing you to express or analyze life from certain perspectives. A reflective process. Within this spectrum there is a sanctuary where you can reflect thinking and rethinking. I think that helped me in some ways,” he says.

“Although it’s not a solution to all problems, it is a fulcrum for me to know that I am able to fight even when I have nothing to hold on to.”

Ridhuan is very proud to be part of the “Routes” exhibition: “For me, this is a very special exhibition. Not because of the highlights. But because I can share the dreams. [of those involved], the aspiring dreams of founders and associates.”

For Ridhuan, the founders of Canvas and GCA are as important as the artists involved in the exhibition. “The founders of Canvas, GCA, and their partners, mentors and supporters are the real artists. They painted a platform with their beliefs and made us artists feel like we really belong.”

With art, I can speak without speaking

Being introverted, there are things I want to say but find it hard to talk about them, but with art I believe I can talk about things without talking.Amos

For Amos, the “Routes” exhibition was his first after his release from prison. He had no expectations or knowledge of the art world, but he is very grateful to everyone involved.

“I have always been interested in art since I was young. Whether it was in any form – painting, drawing, music, performance, etc.,” Amos explains. “I’ve always liked to doodle, but since I was born colorblind, I never really dared to take up painting for fear of color.”

Amos’ first painting experience came when he joined the Visual Arts Hub while incarcerated and took a basic art course. “Painting helped me learn to let go of the fear of judgment about how people are going to perceive my use of color,” he says.

Global Cultural Alliance Ltd is a non-profit organization that focuses on building communities and crossing borders. GCA is committed to developing an inclusive Singaporean society through arts and culture programs and to positioning Singapore as a cultural hub for the exchange of ideas and the sharing of experiences. Founded in 2014, GCA is a 100% subsidiary of TRCL. For more information, visit www.globalculturalalliance.sg.

Founded in 2019, Canvas is a support group for people with experiences of incarceration who were trained in visual arts programs while behind bars in prison. We seek to help our uniquely talented aspirants pursue their life journey and make a difference in the community around us. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/canvasartistssg

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