A conversation with Singapore International Foundation Arts for Good Fellow Muhammad Muazzam

By Michelle Liew

The Arts for Good Fellowship (A4G), organised by the Singapore International Foundation, is an annual programme dedicated to growing the Arts for Good ecosystem by fostering a community of practice that harnesses the power of arts and culture to create positive social change. The A4G Fellowship brings together artists, arts administrators, creatives, and programmers from the social sector from around the world to take part in an exchange of ideas and best practices across a five month period.

The 2021 edition of the Fellowship was offered digitally, with 32 Fellows from 12 countries joining the SIF team and speakers from Singapore in late September. They spent one week learning together, sharing their skills and experiences through a series of virtual presentations, workshops, panel discussions and working groups. Since then, Fellows reconnect through monthly webinars to build their capacity in arts innovation, such as in cultural mapping and creative facilitation models. In February 2022, the Fellows will reconvene for the second phase of the Fellowship, this time hosted by SIF’s partners in India. The India Programme will also see the implementation of four digital community projects that the Fellows have collaborated on over the past months for vulnerable children in various Indian cities. This fourth iteration of the Fellowship focused on the theme of Arts and Well-being for Children and Youth in a Digital Future, exploring the intersections between the arts and technology in enhancing access and achieving social impact, and how the arts contribute to the mental, social and emotional wellness of young people in a digital age. 

Introducing Zam

I had met Zam on occasions prior to this interview, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to really speak with him about his practice. In keeping with the prevailing climate of the pandemic, we had arranged for conversation to take place over Zoom. Zam carried a striking air of candidness that penetrated through even the virtual space, making our physical distance feel marginal.

Muhammad Muazzam, better known as Zam, is an applied theatre practitioner who is now a youth work manager and community artist at 3Pumpkins — a community arts and cultural development agency. 3Pumpkins operates Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC), a community organisation funded by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. TTKC runs a community space for children in Boon Lay, especially intended for those staying in public rental flats. Every day at TTKC is jam-packed with activities: from communal cooking to weekly Getai performances[1] put on by children in the community, Town Hall meetings and excursions.

Zam hosting a community drawing event ‘I Draw You, You Draw Me” under the auspices of  mini International Community Arts Festival (ICAF) 2021. The local community at TTKC were active participants, and connected with the international communities through this hybrid event.  More information here.
(Photo by 3Pumpkins)

Zam shared about the genesis of his journey as an artist and the path that brought him to where he is today. What started out as a penchant for theatre 11 years ago, developed into a strong desire to tap into the power of the arts to engage, educate, and empower the vulnerable, voiceless, and forgotten. He traced the start of everything to his secondary school years when he first dabbled in theatre. Concurrently, he was studying Design & Technology and developed an interest in designing products for the elderly. After secondary school, he went on to pursue a Diploma in Applied Drama and Psychology (DADP) at Singapore Polytechnic. He first encountered Forum Theatre through working with The Fingers Players and The Glowers Drama Group, and since then has worked on numerous projects on a freelance basis, including Last Dance (2018). 

Unpacking socially-engaged art: Operating within the liminal

Socially-engaged art as a field is nebulous. I asked Zam about his thoughts on terms like ‘community arts’ and ‘socially-engaged art’ — whether people using one versus the other made a difference for him. His immediate reply was that this is an ever-evolving field that is difficult to define.

When he was studying DADP, Zam recalls that this type of art felt relatively new in Singapore. Over the years, the form has taken shape more fully. Even so, within the field lies an infinite spectrum of practices.

Zam cited various examples, such as a performance about marginalised communities, which might employ highly participatory research processes, but where the eventual work — a theatre performance — could take on a relatively conventional form. On the other hand, the participatory approaches of Drama Box’s work, for example, take on a different form. Despite being situated in a sometimes-fictional world, audience members are invited to act and respond as themselves within a safe space.

“3Pumpkin’s practice is neither of those,” said Zam. On the surface, it might not look like socially-engaged art, nor will there be opportunities to talk about social issues at every turn. The work is perhaps more akin to placemaking work. There are “real people, real issues and real-life consequences. It’s no longer situated in a fictional world.” He explained that within the more conventional theatre space, the actors form a ‘safety net’ of sorts — they devise the works based on research conducted with community groups. In the case of 3Pumpkins, there is no buffer created by watching actors perform stories. Social issues are not spoken about all the time — rather, they are lived. While Zam is more used to being in a fictional world of theatre, he now finds himself on the set of reality.

Zam pointed out that there are merits to the different forms of socially-engaged art practices, whether it is a more conventional theatre performance, a highly participatory work, or a placemaking work.  While the creative ‘product’ might be more or less conventional, the work itself creates a ‘space of disturbance’ because it ‘asks more questions than it answers’.

Zam having conversations with the youth while peeling chickpeas in TTKC community kitchen.
(Photo by 3Pumpkins)

The work that Zam does with 3Pumpkins creates an imaginative space — children cooking in a communal kitchen is as real as it is imaginary. Real, because food is prepared, made and consumed. Yet imaginary, because it is a space to experiment with ways of being, with alternate realities. In the same way, the Wednesday Getai performances invite children to rehearse and put up performances on their own.  Within those modalities of imagination, the new creations advance something real within the realm of lived reality — a new discovery of one’s capability and interests.

A spontaneous drawing activity at the playground outside TTKC.
(Photo by 3Pumpkins)

3Pumpkin’s practice also comprises a range of modalities that occupy liminal space. Some activities are clearly arts-based, while others are not. Zam explained that they have group work sessions where they identify issues and work with specific groups to address concerns. The approach may not always result in creating an ‘artistic product’ per se, but it is always grounded in the process of creating safe spaces that “ensure that the reality can exist for exploring.”

Throughout this process, Zam said, “artists need to be smart and sharp enough to identify the issues that are emerging.” This requires an ability to perceive the possible connections between a child’s actions or behaviour and other aspects of the child’s environment, in order to situate individual issues within broader systems.

Initiating change through the invisible “in-between”

There is an electrifying dynamism about 3Pumpkin’s community-led practice. Yet much of the real work is invisible and intangible. In community-led practice, actions taken by community members are never simply actions in and of themselves — every act is situated within networks of relations and is informed by one’s social capital. I imagine it as a whole nervous system with living pulses enabling a certain moment.

Being a socially-engaged artist requires astuteness, sensitivity and perception towards people, places and sentiments. Zam shared that the practice requires observation skills that inform the artist on what areas to shift or change. The cue comes from community members. In this type of collaboration, the artist is constantly perceiving and operating invisibly.

Zam admitted that his years of practice in facilitation enable him to do what he does. To be a skilful facilitator is to be able to dissect key ideas, make connections and address larger issues and topics within a group context. This delicate and invisible work of facilitation extends to Zam’s work with community partners. Through his work with 3Pumpkins, he has built partnerships with the Community Link programme, Family Service Centres, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development. The work of connecting stakeholders is an integral part of working in communities. Being able to set up these strategic nodes and connections increases the social capital of a community.  Zam also reflected on how years of teaching in schools have helped him in navigating the emotions that his youth participants sometimes display. The success of an arts project lies in his deftness to understand the characters in a community (both formal and informal stakeholders), and to know how to navigate the dynamics that emerge while setting the stage for moments of change.

“While the form may not always be arts-based, the practice is arts-based. This begs the question of what art is. Can dialogic, facilitated processes be considered art? If so, then does art require artists or can anyone do it?”

Muhammad Muazzam

Can you learn facilitation without being an artist? Absolutely. However, I believe that there is a unique intrinsic quality to facilitators who are also artists. Zam shared that it was through years of exposure to different forms of socially-engaged theatre that he felt enabled to operate within this space; to call himself a ‘socially-engaged artist.’ It first required thoroughness in the understanding of the form before he could practice it in his community.

Form aside — podcast, theatre, visual arts — building relationships and the facilitation of conversations are at the heart of Zam’s practice. He acknowledges that life experience plays an integral part too. As a facilitator tackling complex issues in his community, being astute enough to recognise and acknowledge complexity at every turn becomes critical. To me, a socially-engaged artist is someone who is able to draw connections and associations between seemingly disparate things, while viewing these connections through a poetic lens.

Perhaps that is the beauty of socially-engaged art: beneath the seemingly banal, is a real, lived and intricate network of considerations — the groundwork that has been done to support a single moment of change, however big or small it might be.

Harnessing the energies of discomfort

“I work with everyone and anyone who faces injustice,” said Zam. Political and social change are key to his artistic intent. Throughout our conversation, Zam spoke with riveting passion about the pressing needs in society. While he used to work as a freelancer taking on different projects, he is currently at a juncture where he has found his calling with TTKC. Having a space comes with access to certain resources, such as the time and space to “find a practice and hone a craft.” It also means having the wherewithal to bring in external researchers to study the work, with an aim to eventually push for justice-oriented changes in policy.

Working with the community takes a tremendous amount of time and requires that deep rapport be built between the artist and community members. It involves holding space for real, lived issues. It involves a lot of heart and heartache. When asked if he ever felt ill-prepared for doing this type of work, Zam responded with a laugh, saying “There is a certain thrill to being nervous.” Perhaps this appetite for novelty explained Zam’s multifarious endeavours so far as a practitioner. His excitement about the unknown is surely a strength for artists working at the intersection of arts and community / civic engagement. The unknown presents possibilities for inquiry, driving creation.

Town Hall engagement with the youths facilitated by Zam after a number of theft incidents at TTKC.
(Photo by 3Pumpkins)

One needs to be comfortable with change, tension and conflict. “There is no job scope in the work,” said Zam candidly. When dealing with social issues, the work necessarily involves negotiation with systems, people and power. The road is a treacherous one. You need to pick the spaces in which to resist because they feel worth resisting, and then “keep doing the good work.” It seems that, for Zam, conflict is not something to be avoided, but is rather a spark for his creative energy, a force that keeps him on his toes, that propels him and keeps him going.

With this in mind, Zam endeavours to be constantly exposed to and stimulated by other perspectives. This was the impetus behind his decision to apply for the SIF Arts for Good Fellowship. He wanted to be part of a global network of citizens and stressed the importance of understanding different cultural experiences and practices. “There’s a lot of merit to mingling with people from different backgrounds,” said Zam. “The last thing you want is to be stuck in your own echo chamber […] Social issues are always evolving, so it is important to be stimulated to stay current”. The friendships forged during the fellowship were among the most precious takeaways for Zam. Meeting like-minded practitioners made him dizzy with excitement about the day he would get to collaborate with the other fellows in person and to connect with the growing community of SIF fellows.

Creating real change through the crevices

On the topic of navigating digital space, Zam shared that the first few months of the pandemic’s outbreak felt the most creative — everyone was exploring the possibilities of the digital medium. However, it is important to acknowledge that the digital is indeed a new and different medium, especially for artists whose work relies so heavily on live interactions. The matter is not as easy as simply transferring recordings of live theatre performances online. Presence in the form of breath and energy does not get translated. People risk losing connection with one another even as we become more and more so-called ‘connected’ than ever.

“The real touch is gone,” said Zam. The pandemic made him rethink how he should be understanding and approaching physical presence, touch and connection. There is a sense of abstraction in virtual space — sensorial information is less accessible.

Having experienced the excitement of the digital medium, followed by an honest recognition of the limitations of it, Zam returned full circle to the belief that “change is rooted in showing up and making space.” For the children and youths that Zam works with, physical presence was indispensable. Many of the activities continued unabated, despite the tightening of measures. At least in the context of the community that Zam works with, he believes strongly in having “heart and guts” and in “showing up.” I believe that change work can be initiated from anywhere, physical or virtual. As socially-engaged artists grapple with adapting physical presence for a digital context, I believe the question is less about whether the digital medium can work, and more about for whom it can work. For the community at TTKC, digital engagement did not work, although that does not preclude the possibility of success with different communities.

Regardless of form and medium, socially-engaged creative work demands that the artist sit with and confront the discomfort of social issues. Socially-engaged artists work intentionally to sculpt spaces that allow people to gather safely, enable community resources to be exchanged, and even to respond to systems with alternative ways of being. To initiate change requires imagination, simply because change is about actualising a vision that does not yet exist. When socially-engaged artists carve out spaces for people to make and create through the arts, they offer opportunities for people to practise exercising their muscle of imagination. When that imaginative capacity is then applied to real issues, people can create real actions that shift the conditions of their lived realities in positive and profound ways.

[1] Getai performances are live stage performances held during Singapore’s Hungry Ghost Festival.