“Oftentimes, when we go to school, or work or be in society, there are accepted norms that are expected of us. This is important, but to create safe spaces, we have to allow the freedom for a person to be who they are,” says art facilitator, Alice Ng.
As someone with more than 30 years of experience working with marginalised communities in the United Kingdom and Malaysia, Alice shares that valuing what truly matters is equivalent to placing importance on people rather than their personal afflictions.
“If we can shift our focus on how we perceive people, if we can recognise that what’s truly important is the person and not the medical condition or disability, we can embrace what is, instead of mourning what isn’t, or isn’t anymore.”
During her stint in London, Alice was part of L’Arche in the UK, an organisation she credits for her insights in dealing with people. These include removing hierarchical dynamics and listening and responding without injecting personal opinions or views.
Although Alice is a trained artist, she does not impose her talent and skills upon the participants of her art workshops.
“I see myself more as a facilitator rather than a teacher. In my sessions, I am more focused on guiding the participants to express themselves rather than emphasising technique executions.”
Alice says these practices are her way of offering a safe space in her sessions.
For filmmaker and artist, Alistair Debling, a safe space can be located in a friend’s living room, a dancefloor, or even a Zoom call.
As long as the space is one, “in which people express love and joy for all those things that made me feel different and ashamed…”
By definition, a safe space can vary in criteria for different groups of people and different causes. Yet the relevance and importance of safe spaces are the same for all.
In supporting and building trust with communities all around the world, the British Council considers it important to foster and support the creation of safe spaces.
“As the UK’s International Arts and Education organisation, we support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding, and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. Building trust, especially when working with marginalised communities all around the world, requires a level of safety assurance. Only then can we achieve meaningful, true, and honest exchanges,” says Florence Lambert, British Council Malaysia’s Head of Arts and Creative Industries.
“We also support and promote open society values. In some contexts, these values can be a source of differences and debate and even go against policies, engendering risks for all parties involved. Hence we need to provide a safe environment for the communities we work with in order to engage with them.”
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Florence defines a safe space as a “place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.”
The British Council Malaysia’s Arts and Education division has demonstrated support by elevating artists and their works, such as Alistair’s project with Malaysian researcher, Kat Rahmat, “On the Queer Time of Elephants”.
Alistair and Kat’s project has resulted in an experimental film that explores the concepts of memory, habitat, and heritage loss, which are common themes in both the queer and wildlife ecosystems.
The juxtaposition of two unlikely worlds together, without diminishing the urgency and relevance of either cause, is aimed at creating unexpected connections between advocates with distinct concerns.
“There are certainly some common denominators among different forms of marginalisation and history shows us that solidarity can be built across causes in this way. There’s a whole field of queer ecology in which queer and environmental advocates share space and resources. But the commitment to one cause might not always predict understanding for another. I’m thinking of particular branches of “environmentalism” that drift into eco-fascist and white supremacist logic, or LGBTQIA+ spaces that are racist and/or ableist. I’m hopeful, though, that the trend is towards more inclusive spaces that allow intersecting identities and causes to support one another,” says Alistair.
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“For decades now, the creative industries in Malaysia have been an unspoken haven for minorities. They’re a good case study for how organisations that encourage a culture with freedoms of expression tend to foster alongside it a sense of inclusivity that makes it an implied safe space. Pushing the right progressive values – as organisations or as individuals – that inclusivity can only benefit everyone – is both strategically difficult to censor and sends a clear signal that there are allies out there rooting for you,” says Kat.
Based on this concept of inclusion and creating connections and solidarity between marginalised communities, Lina Tan decided to create Temu House.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Klang Valley, Temu House is a private space that offers a convenient yet discreet meeting point. Since opening in November 2021, Temu House has catered to various organizations and individuals, who may have a need for a safe space.
“I have always created mainstream content for film and TV with issues that center around women’s rights plus incorporating minority group representation where I can. So creating a safe space was in my thoughts for a long time as a venue that can allow for meaningful networking across different groups of women, minority communities, and also people who just want to meet other people outside of their bubble. Hence calling it “Temu” was apt because it literally means “meet” in Malay. I don’t curate my guests but I curate the events and through the events, we attract the kind of guests we want,” says Lina, who is also the founder of Red Communications, which famously produced the Malaysian TV programme, 3R – Respect, Relax, ResponD. The 15-year running show started as a breath of fresh air in Malaysian mainstream media, showcasing young women and discussing issues in an open and authentic way.
Lina shared that she hopes Temu House would continue to attract communities that support creative freedom, women and minority rights, and who believe knowledge is empowerment and creativity comes in all shapes and sizes.
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According to Florence from the British Council Malaysia, the policies of each country constitute the legal framework that informs the formal methods for providing safe spaces.
“But when communities are marginalised in the country, they need formal and informal safe spaces. There are organisations that specialize in working with each category of community: it’s good to look at their practices, benchmarks, and guidelines for better understanding. There are also organisations that specialise in safeguarding communities,” says Florence.
She recommends for artists and art organisations that are interested to support safe spaces, begin by first understanding several key factors;
“Artists and arts organisations can play a pivotal role in creating awareness around issues and helping marginalised voices be better heard. They can also foster dialogue, debates, and exchanges of ideas. Provoking, questioning, and challenging the status quo is also important to shape society, and what better way to do it than the arts?”
Cover Image features participants in an art workshop by Alice Ng in Ipoh. (Photo credit: Alice Ng)