In Alecia Neo’s world, “art” isn’t some conceptual, hoity-toity museum exhibit that garners ambivalent nods or sycophantic comments. The local artist creates works that resonate with those who lack the opportunity to appreciate it, whether it’s low-income groups, the elderly or visually impaired.
Neo is the founder of Unseen Art Initiatives, a nonprofit arts company offering programmes for the disabled, with a strong focus on supporting the visually impaired.
“We want to help develop young leaders from the visually-impaired community, to empower them to take ownership and lead their own projects. So we support them to do new things that might be inaccessible in their regular lives.”
Neo remembers a visually-impaired student who joined the Unseen Art Workshops in 2014, a project-based platform that exposes disabled youth to different art forms and encourages them to participate. The 14-year-old was paired with actress Sharda Harrison, who served as her mentor for the programme. In 2019, she became the first visually-impaired person to graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts.
Aside from helping young people explore their creative talent, Neo also ensures her other artistic projects are accessible to the visually impaired. For example, Unseen: Touch Field features a tactile installation that’s meant to be experienced in the dark, with participants touching braille drawings that are based on photographs taken by sight-impaired individuals. Besides allowing the visually impaired to experience art, it also invites others to experience the way they see the world.
But even good work can attract criticism. Neo’s initiatives have been accused of being too narrow, too small-scale — and for not having enough of an impact on the visually-impaired community.
Yet she continues to find strength in the success stories Unseen Art has been a part of. Another visually-impaired student, with support from Neo and the collective, created an audiobook about a blind criminal investigator; when he got into law school, Neo threw a party to celebrate the achievement.
“It’s like planting seeds,” she says. “One small thing leads to another, and this helps students gradually gain confidence.”
As Neo reveals, she used to believe that the measure of success for an artist was having his or her works shown in a gallery. But listening to her wax lyrical about the students she’s empowered through her art, it’s clear her mindset has changed.
This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of A Magazine.