Recently, editor Kirin Heng travelled to Hong Kong and visited Bellini Yu of i-dArt at Tung Wah Group Hospital, where the latter coordinates an arts education programme under i-dArt for people with different abilities. As Bellini very generously gave more than three hours of her time being interviewed and showing the location and artworks of the programme, this interview extract is comprised of four parts in order to provide a clear overview of her work at i-dArt. This first part serves as an introduction to the whole programme, while following parts are about the artistic evolution of three of her students from the cohort of 2013. THIS CONVERSATION IS PART OF THE ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIESREAD MORE in the upcoming Energy Issue.

Pictured from left: Kirin Heng, Bellini Yu, and Jeslyn and Rebekah, two friends of Kirin who were also interested in learning more about Bellini’s work

[On the objectives of the i-dArt Arts Course programme]

B: The objectives of our course are not similar to those outside. Why we have to organize such a course instead of a regular art group is because we think the arts potential has been hidden in these people. So we think they deserve a proper, organised art training, all of it. So it is just a question of equality, than really the quality of their art or their potential. But of course, because they have the potential, we think they deserve this. So the selection process is totally different [from the normal arts school]. We think it is more important to provide this platform so that they get the same opportunity to learn arts.

K: That’s great. So the objective is mainly to develop them as artists, not really a rehabilitative [purpose]? Not a therapeutic objective?

B: To be precise, we do not aim to train them as artists. They can just [choose to be] trained for three years and that [alone] is okay for us. We are providing the equal opportunity for those who have the interest in art, who want to learn art just to enrich their lives through the three years, through their aspirations or exposure. So for us, at the end if they become artists or not, it’s not important.

K: Whose idea was this?

B: It was not anyone’s idea. But maybe it was the occasion that [called for it]. There was no team in the very beginning, just me and my supervisor who is a social worker, who just wanted to do some arts projects in the complex. But […] we [found] [that] their artwork, their arts potential […] deserve[d] to have more opportunities, to get more chances to be exhibited. So we [tried] to get more resources, and we suddenly got the chance to have a community space to develop an artspace. Things came up and have happened [along the way], and now, ten years later we have an art team. So I don’t think it was anyone’s idea that [caused these things] to happen. And this arts course is just one of the projects under i-dArt. And these projects just [fulfil] the i-dArt mission, which I just mentioned. These projects are special and significant because it is more an educational project instead of arts facilitation project. We want to noise how unfair it is for those artists with disabilities who do not have an equal opportunity to an arts education. Also the professor advises our curriculum and the teaching team, including some local artists who are the teachers of the course, and evaluate the course semester by semester, even lesson by lesson. Because this is quite a new idea in Hong Kong to teach artists or art students with intellectual disabilities about art theory and history. So how to teach them if those who cannot even name the correct colour? How to teach colour theory? How do you teach art history, if you’re not quite sure if he or she has the intellectual ability to understand [it]? These are the kind of questions that our teachers ask.

K: So day to day, you are constantly readapting your programme to suit the students’ needs?

B:

Yes, we are tuning our way of delivery. Using the most suitable way to cater to students with different abilities. But at the end, we are saying that even though they cannot understand something, even though they have the limitation on some ability, they can have the same opportunity. Just the way of delivery is different.

K: What do you do personally on a day-to-day basis for this programme?

B: I am now the senior arts development officer, [and have] become the arts admin in front of the computer instead of really serving them directly. We curate the different kinds of art projects behind the team. For the course, I am also the coordinator behind-the-scenes, who talks to the teacher before every meeting and also plans together with the teacher the direction of the course. I’m the one [who has been with] the project [since the beginning], looking at the direction of the project. And I coordinate all the resources for the teacher, and discussing the outcomes and effectiveness with the teacher, the way of delivery. And for the first semester, I was also a teacher.

Actually before this course [the first cohort in 2013], we already had a very long-term art training. For that art training, it was more of an interest group, whereby they came regularly, one or two hours per week. We ended up with the conclusion that actually they deserve better education and opportunities. So we came up with this course. We turned this [previous programme] into [the course now] through our experience.

Now we already have our second cohort, and they are coming to their third year. For this second cohort, I was a teacher in the first semester too. And we have a totally different teaching approach for this cohort compared to the first cohort. We also found some weaknesses from the first cohort[‘s programme]. Therefore based on this experience, we wanted to change the direction and approach for this second cohort.

[Showing the curriculum in the first cohort’s graduation book] This curriculum is concluded at the end of the third year, as we adjust and discuss semester by semester. We didn’t know this plan at the very beginning. At the end, we [looked things over and] conclude[d] that this [was] what we’ve done in these three years. And things need[ed] to improve.

We saw that in these three years, with 16 students, none of them had any artworks with sad emotions. This is quite impossible: sixteen persons who don’t have any sadness in three years. Most of their works were happy in mood. So we were thinking we cannot really make them freely express their emotions in the course. This is actually quite a normal situation in the rehab field. Because social workers usually will ask “are you happy today?” or “is this drawing happy for you?” … They are used to, trained to, shaped to, answer, to show their happiness but hide their sadness, maybe [due to the] Asian culture… They somehow try to hide…

K: To say “everything is okay.”

B: Yes, “everything is okay, I am happy”. So we think it’s quite sad that they cannot freely express their emotions through art, even in our course. Secondly, we find they have autonomy in this art studio, it’s where they have grown in the three years. But when they step out of the room, they go back to their disabled life. So art is quite heavy, quite distanced from their routine lives still. We think this is what we could improve: to bring art closer to their daily life.

[Asking about Bellini Yu’s artworks outside of i-dArt] K: So the works you show on your website are works you did while you were a student?

B: No. They’re the works I made while doing my part-time arts education, while already working here. So the themes of my works are inspired by working here and the surface-users here. I don’t think I chose to come to this field, but just by occasion. […] I didn’t have any experience of working with people with different abilities beforehand, but now I am very familiar and happy to work with them. They give me much inspiration, not only for art, but also life. I’ve been here for maybe ten years or more.

I keep finding more and more things I have to do or can do for or with people with different abilities in the arts field. Especially in Asia, this group of artists is ignored. [In fact,] in most countries they are.

Artists of i-dArt at work

Artist of i-dArt at work

Maybe Japan is better [than the rest]. Even in Hong Kong, you cannot see their artworks in any exhibition [or] gallery. There is still much to do for them, to make noise for them, to make people understand their artistic potential. Not only in the visual arts, but performing arts. And for Hong Kong arts field, our arts team plans to have more studies with all the other local organisations. We plan to have an international conference next year and ask overseas organisations to come and explain how they work with these artists: how they promote them and get attention from mainstream art for these artists. Hong Kong art has still much to do [for these artists]. Maybe that’s the main reason why I’m still here. Every year, even now, I’ve got something [new to do] that I’ve never done before.

This project was started four years ago, but it is [still] challenging for us and for my team. From the very beginning, how do we find the teacher for them? Not many artists are willing to commit in this three-year project. For them as full-time artists, as freelancers, they have to put in hours to come and teach them art. What we ask for is not one way of teaching; we have to find out, experiment, what kind of teaching and what way of delivery is the best for them. It’s not just teaching, but more than teaching. They need to keep meeting us regularly.

K: I understand that as programme coordinator, working in intersecting environments, you have to work with other people from the other end of the spectrum, healthcare professionals who have no experience in art. Do you have any problems in doing so?

B: Yes, yes, but I think it’s [more of] a challenge, than a problem. For them, they’ve got their own profession. I feel that it is difficult to communicate, because they even don’t know how to use a canvas, so their way of seeing art is totally different from me. To them, it is just a leisure activity. For their client to just kill time. For me, it is different: they can be trained as artists. Of course, for some of them [it is indeed] for leisure. But most of them are finding their abilities and potential. So these [two] perceptions [of art] are very different. It is difficult to communicate and have a mutual understanding. But after a few years, they see how [the students’] artwork gained the proper attention and their exhibition got appreciated by the public, we even got a local auction house to support their work to sell in their seasonal auction. Family members [of the students] feel that they have another face that they have never seen.

Gradually we changed the mindset [of the healthcare professionals and social workers] about [the students’] ability and the function of art in rehab. For [them], we do give art training. Practical art training, how to use a canvas, how to define watercolour, and more about how to do arts facilitation. [At first] maybe they [would not] know what it is, they [may] try to define [the artists’] work [by their own criteria of aesthetics…]

We have to change their definitions and mindsets and how to do arts facilitation to help develop [students’] abilities. Gradually, we [have been] doing more and more of this kind of art training [for healthcare professionals]. And now they are getting better. Our communication is getting better, they understand better how arts are useful for their service. And our team is also learning how great it is to have them in our work, as they are also serving something we cannot serve: in counselling, in taking care of their emotions, in [helping us] know much more about [the students’] personal background, which help us in developing their arts potential. So we are actually now having a co-working relationship, by which we talk to their social worker to understand their art background and also [the social workers] are interested to understand how they perform in the arts classes and how we do our arts facilitation.

K: You mentioned earlier that you had to change the curriculum a bit to allow them to express more emotion in their art. Was it helpful in talking with the social workers then?

B: Yes, because at least we know their personal background, so that we can understand  their emotions effectively through our course or their personal drawings. Sometimes they will draw some subject matter that I do not understand, so I ask their social worker [about it]. But of course it’s not easy to just let them freely express themselves. While they leave the studio, go back to the hostel, they are being constrained in some way. Their behaviour, their emotions, are in some [sense] being constrained or bound in some way. So we are also responsible to help them release [their emotions] but also not to release too much.

K: Do you think you’ll stay here longer to figure this out and all these problems?

B: I don’t think I’m the one who could figure this out, but our team, including the teacher team, tries to study together. But this kind of study isn’t the type of book-study: we cannot do this like approaching a research topic. In action, in class, it’s not that direct. Some teachers try to explore the personal creation topic for each of the students, so he tries to interview their parents and social worker individually, at least 30 minutes for each one. Just to try to understand the story behind the student, the personal background. For that, you cannot see [the teacher’s] direct intention to understand their emotion, but actually that he is doing something related to that emotion.

But anyway, they are just normal people like us who cannot really be studied. I think we [try to] keep it normal, while having the consciousness and awareness on this part, and we try not produce another cohort [that expresses] only happiness [in their artwork].

And also, our team did another exhibition that has just come to mind. We got a public discussion about curatorship versus the autonomy of artists with intellectual disability.

For the graduation show for this cohort, we hired an external curator to help to curate the graduation show for them. And the curator did not have much experience in working with artists with different abilities. So how he [may] curate  and how the artists, especially those with intellectual disability, understand how their work is being presented, are actually questions that are quite a critical [point] that all our workers, even social workers, artists, curators, teachers have to think about. Not because they are intellectually disabled, so they cannot speak, they cannot answer you, so that you do not disrespect their own thought on how to present their own work. But on the other hand it is a very normal way that curators and artists have a relationship based on how the artist’s work is presented. There is the case that it has [little] to do with the artist and more to do with how the curator designed this. So why would you have to give [more] respect to the artist just because they are discriminated? It is actually quite a critical question, with no yes or no, or right or wrong answer.

We used an exhibition as a case-study for this issue. We held some workshops talking about these questions with different groups of people- some social workers, some art students with intellectual disabilities, some with the public. We held very simple workshops to discuss how to balance or to think about curatorship and the autonomy. Our team wants to do more about this: to bring up issues arising from the arts and artists with different abilities.