Tiffany Singh reframes social issues through artwork that’s given back to marginalised communities around the world.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Art speaks most when it’s but a reflection of the viewer itself; a chance for introspection and even a call to action. This is what acclaimed artist Tiffany Singh strives for in her creations, which have in turn brought her to the furthest reaches of the globe: from her motherland New Zealand, to Nepal, Mexico, the US and Taiwan, touching communities along the way.
Born in Auckland, of Indian and Samoan ethnicity, the 41-year-old social practice artist found her artistic voice in her mid-20s after a trip to India to connect with her roots. “I was already halfway through a fine arts degree at Auckland University,” she recalls, “but I didn’t really have anything to say through my art because I didn’t have enough life experience yet.” Her visit to India, which was originally meant to last three months but turned into three formative years, opened her eyes to her own privilege, as well as what made her so different from those she grew up with. “Despite never having been to India, I immediately identified with the country,” Tiffany says, “it aligned with my tastes, the way that I dress, what I like to eat, and my love of colour – colour is a massive medium for me. In India, all your senses are stimulated. I try to bring that to my work through sensual elements beyond just the visual. Sound, scent, touch – it doesn’t have to have an intellectual feel; it’s an entry point from the soul.”
India also helped her realise what she wanted her art to say. “Beyond the natural materials that I like to use, social practice is my medium,” she advises, “and it began with my volunteer work in Ahmedabad, Gujarat for a year. People donated paints to me, which I used to make murals, both of which I’d take into the slums. The kids there wouldn’t even look at the samples I made and instead created their own art from the heart. I realised that the end result is not the most important thing, it’s about what the art is doing in terms of education and empowerment and well-being. It shouldn’t just be an artist with an egotistic view of ‘this is the outcome that I want.’”
Tiffany took this revelation and honed it into a conviction that has since informed all her pieces. “I always ask myself, how can I use my creative ability to help people feel valued and give them a sense of worth?” Tiffany explains, and the answer is through her decades of community outreach and challenging social issues. Every work she makes is a collaboration with the communities she visits, especially as a conduit through which more marginalised groups’ voices can be heard. “The works that have stayed with me through the years are not because of what they look like, but because of what they’ve managed to do politically, who they’ve managed to support, and the conversations they’ve floated.”
In 2012, for example, Tiffany began a conceptual art project called ‘Fly Me Up to Where You Are’ which saw up to 15,000 children from lower socio-economic backgrounds draw their dreams in flags which were then hoisted into the sky for all to see. The project, which won acclaim from the Human Rights Commission, was initially commissioned by the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival and has since taken place in four Arts Festivals over five years, and been applied to two Human Rights Youth Development Workshops. It allowed the children to voice their most sincere desires: from basic needs like food and water, to nebulous concepts like world peace, happiness, or even an end to the earthquakes that had ravaged Christchurch in 2011.
Another art project that Tiffany considers one of her favourites is one called ‘The Journey of a Million Miles Begins with One Step’ which was in collaboration with the Auckland Resettled Community Coalition (ARCC). The work consisted of boats that were made into audio units that the audience could sit beneath and listen to recordings made by members of resettled communities in New Zealand. “New Zealand is turning into quite a racist place,” Tiffany decries, “and a lot of the media have been talking about what refugees would cost us, and not about the humanitarian aspect. This project was an opportunity for people to hear directly from the resettled communities, and educate themselves in the process.”
Other works of significance include her 2019 ‘Make a House a Home’ project with the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in collaboration with Te Ora Auaha, a New Zealand national network for health and well being through the arts started by Tiffany herself in 2015. The interactive work consisted of 108 art pieces painted by Tiffany, which viewers could take home in exchange for blankets, pillows, fridges, and other commodities that were given to the Red Cross, which in turn distributed them to refugees in need.
Part of Tiffany’s outreach has been living within these communities herself. “In my artist’s residencies, I live somewhere for months at a time so I have an opportunity to support the local community. I buy local products and build a relationship with them so that they feel that there’s a part of them in this work.” For her residency in Thailand, Tiffany chose to collaborate with marginalised groups of women, brokered through the CHAMALiiN project, a social enterprise began in 2016 that provides sustainable livelihood for vulnerable women – mostly from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Vietnam – in a way that empowers them. Aptly, her show in Thailand, entitled The Pink Period, focuses on the challenges that female artists face, especially in balancing gendered domestic expectations on top of their work.
The project, which runs from 7th September to 10th November this year, splits its proceeds 50/50 with the community and is hosted by Bangkok 1899, a multi-purpose cultural hub created by the Creative Migration organisation. The space channels a unique energy created by the tactile and interactive elements of the pieces, from the doormats and red carpet hand-stitched by the women from CHAMALiiN that visitors can choose to step on (much like they may choose to walk over the women in their lives), to the papercut of magnificent proportions on which a video of domestic life is projected, beyond which a separate artwork of light and shadow is created. In pride of place is a wooden box on a plinth, through which you can hear recordings of successful Taiwanese women artists, who expound on the stigma associated with political art in a time of martial law.
“It’s interesting seeing people’s reactions,” Tiffany says, “Even when people read the symbolism behind the works, we’ve had those who’ve deliberately gone back and wiped their feet on the doormats. I’ve had to have a conversation with the women who made them and say, this work is about the challenges that women face, so people will walk over it. And they were actually very receptive to that. They got it.”
After having her two young children, Sequoia and Akaash, while continuing to put on major art shows and going on residencies, Tiffany felt that the time was right to have this conversation through her work. “One of my biggest challenges to date is finding spaces for women artists with children to work, which comes out of the traditional narrative that the fine arts space is for men,” Tiffany reveals. “The Pink Period is about the challenges that female artists face, so if I hadn’t continued with my art while I had my kids, I wouldn’t be able to talk about these challenges because it wouldn’t have been as authentic. I think subconsciously a lot of industries feel that we women are a high-risk investment, because we’re going to get pregnant and leave. That’s really problematic because it’s perpetuating the narrative that women have to make a choice between our careers and children.”
In fact, one of Tiffany’s achievements that she’s most proud of is how she’s found the wherewithal to balance her children and her art. “We’ve been brainwashed into thinking you have to make that choice, but you don’t have to. It’s been amazing to me that I was able to do both,” she says, “It’s not easy, but it’s possible. We need more places that support that. And it’s been an incredible thing to share with my kids – being surrounded by so many people from all walks of life must inform their lives.”
In the end, Tiffany’s goal is to reposition the value of fine art in terms of health and education. “The arts can be incredibly pivotal in educating people about issues in a humanitarian way without an external agenda, as well as operating as an honest space through which people can process their trauma. I want people to ultimately re-evaluate the value of art in solving contemporary issues, and in helping to promote personal well-being. It’s why I do what I do.”