International Women’s Day may have come and gone, but at PrestigeOnline, we’re always celebrating powerful women. Across time, cultures and continents, women are effecting change everywhere, and that includes Singapore too. One such local trailblazer is Abigail Han.
Abigail defines what it means to be a multi-hyphenate. By day, she’s a programme curator at 1880 and by night, she’s an artist and a film maker. The Fine Arts graduate with a Masters under her belt also has had her work — using assorted mediums, including photography and film — exhibited internationally. We speak to her about her multiple roles, her upcoming film and the cause she fights for.
Can you tell us a little about what you do at 1880?
I curate a gamut of programmes — from salon discussions to classical music concerts, film screenings to cocktail making classes, art talks to wine dinners. My interest in social issues and change has inspired me to play an active role in 1880’s impact foundation, 1880NE, the establishment’s first women’s forum, and, most recently, organising a trip for members to have a private audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.
You have so much on your plate. How do you juggle it all?
I will be the first to say I don’t juggle it perfectly. I owe it to my family, friends, and colleagues who have encouraged and supported me along the way. Most days, I tell myself that I am only human, and I cannot do it all. On other days, I grit my teeth and remind myself that it is good training for when I raise five children in the future.
Tell us more about this film you’re currently working on.
This film is the first project that 1880NE will fund, and it explores the importance of involving both boys and girls in achieving gender equality, rather than simply advocating female empowerment. My colleague Qin Pei and I went on our first trip to India. This film was inspired by a conversation, with an Indian feminist working in the developmental sector who said to us: “Alleviating poverty is not a one size fits all.” The complexities of poverty and developmental work are more than meets the eye. Even in all our privilege and access, we take hours to reach the forlorn villages where beneficiaries live.
Through working on the film, we want to discover if working for change in the land of one million NGOs can truly transform mindsets, revolutionise glamourised giving and accord shakti (the Bengalese word for power) to those who are disadvantaged. We don’t think we will have all the answers but from vicariously listening to stories from our safe vantage point in Singapore, and experiencing the slums and progress in India first-hand — in all its vibrancy, inequality, and fight — we hope the story we tell will enlighten ourselves and others.
What is the number one cause you believe in?
There are many causes that tug at my heart, so it is hard to choose one. But I believe that all children should have a safe and loving home to grow up in. I desire restoration and restitution for all foster children and the orphaned.
What was your journey like to becoming an artist?
It was honestly relatively easy. I am aware of the privilege that was accorded to me not because of anything I’ve done or earned. My parents were very supportive of me studying film in undergrad and then subsequently completing my Masters in Fine Arts. I had the opportunity to live in America for 10 years of my formative adult life and that shaped and established me as a young adult and artist (for better or for worse).
On the circumstantial level, it was relatively obstacle-free. My greatest hindrances come from within. There is always a measure of insecurity in every artist and I often ask myself if I am good enough; if I am taking enough risks; or if the art I produce makes a difference. I am humbled to be given the opportunity to work on my previous projects, and I often find these projects coming my way when I least expect it. So, owing to serendipity and providence, this journey has given me more than I’ve ever expected.
Your work spans film, photography and performance. What is your favourite medium to express yourself?
The content and subject matter I’m working on in my art drives the medium. I am always open to experimentation. However, I am drawn mostly to images, both still and moving, because they possess the ability to convey an unspeakable language on different terms.
What is the work you’re proudest of to date?
All my works are like my children, so it is difficult to choose one that I am proudest of. They were also made in different seasons of life, so they are equally unique and shaped by the circumstances I was in. But I’ll say that in.visible, the project where I photographed and told the stories of five women who had experiences with sexual assault, was the work that pivoted my art practice and changed me immensely as a young artist. And also, mastering my grandmother’s Hainanese recipes, especially her famed Hainanese chicken rice. This is an embodied legacy I will always treasure.
Tell us about some of the women you look up to.
Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia for her childlike faith. I believe sometimes we learn the most from fiction and children. Lilias Trotter, whose paintings changed John Ruskin’s mind about women artists during his time but left her art practice to serve poor women in Algeria. Audre Lourde for her seminal writings on feminism. Emily Jacir for her art practice and many more.
But the women I look up to the most are the women who live faithful, quiet and obscure lives. You don’t hear about them because they don’t toot their own horn but I admire them for their strength and steadfastness. Women like my mother, grandmother and many other friends I know, whose spheres of influence are deeply interpersonal and intentional.
As I move through life, I find that learning from women both older and younger to be a great joy. The right women always enter my life just at the right time.
In your opinion, is gender an obstacle in the art world?
I think that gender inequality does exist in the art world. But often times, it is made to be a bigger obstacle than it actually is. Tracey Emin once said that the only artists who can continue their art practice and have children are male. I do not agree as I know many women artists whose art practice evolved after they’ve had children. Mary Kelly, a feminist and artist made a work entitled, Post-Partum Document, which analysed her newborn son’s development, their emotional bond and his early attempts at writing. This particular work was a tabloid scandal in the ’70s and made huge waves in the contemporary art world.
How do women navigate this obstacle?
I’d say that women navigate this obstacle best by wholeheartedly embracing and celebrating who they are, their limitations, strengths and unique perspectives and experiences. Childbearing is not an experience to be shunned. Instead, it should be embraced for it is an experience that the opposite sex will never have a taste of. I always believe that experiences in life are the greatest equaliser in art; they cannot be copied or plagiarised. Artists create only from their vantage point and through the different seasons they undergo. Everyone’s life is different, so the permutations and combinations for perspectives are never boring!
What advice would you give to young, aspiring artists?
Don’t be afraid of hard work and the time it takes to produce art. We live in a capitalistic and over-productive society that tells us that to be successful we must produce and we must do it quickly. But art has its own time and drums to a different beat, so take your time.
As you move through different seasons, your practice will change, and there is so much beauty in that. There are some pieces that never see the light of day, but not all art has to be displayed, exhibited or sold. I always remind myself not to confuse being an artist with being a narcissist, or how much my pieces sell for. I always believe that true artists create because it’s like breathing. They do it out of necessity, for without it, they surely will not survive.
All outfits are from Karen Millen Spring/Summer 2019 collection and are available at ION Orchard and Paragon.
Photographer: Julian Ong
Stylist: Lena Kamarudin
Makeup: Chris Siow
Fashion: Junz Loke
Fashion assistance: Kristal Sulaiman
Photography assistance: Joe Ong