neurodivergent world

Clement Space @ Playeum 2019 – Dawn-joy Leong

Seems as if I’ve been involved in quite a few “firsts” in Singapore lately. The most recent was the very first Autism/Neurodivergent-Led, Disabled-Led Art & Design residency, which was support by the National Library’s library@orchard branch, and yesterday saw the soft opening of Singapore’s first Neurodivergent immersive and interactive space – crafted by two autistic artists and two artists with Down syndrome, curated by Esther Joosa and Imran Mohamed for Playeum, a centre for children to discover creativity in multiple ways. The very beginning of my relationship with Esther and Playeum was pretty rough, marked by a few fierce differences, mainly around conflicting approaches and I was critical of the lack of dynamic disabled representation. But they took stock, listened to what I had to say, even though it was painful I am sure, with my blunt, mince-no-words autistic style of communication, as I learned to step back and allow space and time for people to get accustomed to my manner without compromising on my principles. We were willing to engage sincerely, and we all forged on ahead because we shared a common vision. This is the kind of frank, open and truthful collaboration that is rare here in Singapore, something that arts professionals and disability professionals (especially the non-autistic ‘experts’ in Autism) need urgently to learn and embrace. Autistics communicate and operate socially in ways different from the normative. For one, I struggle with the fluffy dressing that normative society prizes so highly – what is wrong with the truth? Isn’t it easier to go forward if unhindered by flotsam and jetsam? Apparently not, judging by the many awkward silences and the defensiveness that I experience so much of the time, whenever I speak my plain and simple opinion to the Normative. It’s not that I cannot perform fakery, but its arduous superficiality exhausts me, and leaves me with a sense of Self-Betrayal. Why should I continue to pander? I am no circus clown. I have a serious message to deliver. And I’ve come to this point in my life where I don’t wish to compromise my Autistic Integrity anymore. So, I’ve burned a few bridges, but I have to walk the talk, be true to my principles, and to who I am. The good thing about being authentic is that it acts as a sieve, separating the dross from the gold, and when there is goodness, it is alway genuine. Refined by the fires of the Autistic Gaze. The folks at Cheekiemonkie have published a review of our space from the soft opening that took place yesterday (13 May 2019). There some really nice photographs there too, so do check it out. Done, though not quite yet dusted. I am utterly exhausted. How do I feel about scoring yet another ‘first’ in Singapore? I honestly never did set out to do all these “groundbreaking” things when I returned to my homeland. I’m not competitive at all, I just want to practice my research and art peacefully: no jostling, twisting, churning, no being bullied, exploited, tokenised and patronised, then left bereft and run-down in the aftermath. But this is not the way of the normative world, it is not the way that any field of practice existing in the ‘normal’ behaves. One-upmanship, elbowing each other out of the way, scrambling for recognition, scratching for the sometimes insultingly tiny morsels of available grant money tossed out to what seems like hungry crocodiles, and backstabbing, backbiting and goodness only knows what other unfathomable (to the autistic mind) bizarre posturing abound. Of course, as a creative and a researcher, it is no doubt exciting to be doing things that have not been done before; and as someone vocal about the rights of disabled people across disabilities (especially the Autistic and Neurodivergent), it is truly heartening to see that even in a desert such as the one I now inhabit, intrinsic beauty can still grow. However, it’s not all exhilaration: the costs – mental, physical and financial – are also high. For this work, Clement Space @ Playeum, I consented to a fee that is less than a quarter of my lowest standard artist’s fee while I put in more than twice the work. (OK, lets me honest here: a janitor is paid more per hour of work than I was for this.) Working on this drained most of my limited energy and financial resources – I couldn’t take on other higher paying jobs as I wanted to give this work proper focus, the initial wrangle with the curators of this exhibition was also draining to my mental and emotional resources. But we made it through, and at the end of the day, mutual respect and reciprocal empathic resonance is more important to me than money. A conversation has begun here, and one that is close to my heart. If, by this small hurdle that I had to scrape through, a tiny sacrifice in the grand frothing sea of disability advocacy, I could somehow convince others to look deeper, closer, with more heart and less normative judgement, and to open the eyes of their souls and minds to the voices of the marginalised, then I consider it well worthwhile. All of us artists worked extremely hard to bring our inner worlds to the wider community, it is a gift from us to share, a Welcome to Our World. Head over here to view my photo-logue – tracing the process, from Work-in-Progress, to the soft opening, where everything, everyone’s work, all came together, under the curatorial baton of Esther Joosa and Imran Mohamed. And of course, Lucy, the embodiment of Clement Space, was there, showing all who would stop to notice, how it really should be.
Demonstrating Clement Space.