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July 18, 2019

Proximity- Joyce Kutty, MDes INTAR 2019

by joycekutty

I keep replaying Bryan Stevenson’s commencement speech in my head. “Proximity, changing the narrative, staying hopeful, and being uncomfortable”- all of which I am trying my best to fulfill during my time here. I started at Tenaganita’s shelter for residents in need (women and children). I introduced myself by sharing my story, photos of my mother, and some of my work I have done at RISD. My mother was born in Malaysia, and had experienced the oppressions of domestic work here in Southeast Asia. This experience is incredibly personal, but allowing myself to be vulnerable helped create an immediate bond with these women. By week two I went from “Joyce” to “Kakak” which means “big sister” in Malay.

I am mainly conducting collaborative workshops with residents at our NGO’s shelter. I have been working with about 8-10 residents every week, all migrant workers primarily from Indonesia or India who have ongoing legal cases with their former employers. These cases are horrific and are tremendous violations of their human rights. We focus less directly on their cases and more on developing friendship and a sense of democracy and community through art and design. In short, we are simply enjoying getting to know each other. We’ve creating multimedia work that is inspired by Indonesian and Malaysian landscape.

This resident started to play with layering prints!


As I shift focus from my own design work and exhibition goals, I realize that my time here is precious. Within the first week I re-shifted my schedule to my initial, overarching goal: EMPOWERMENT. I can see everyone gain confidence and become more comfortable just by being more comfortable with materials and techniques.

For their own protection, they are in our NGO’s care, and aren’t really allowed out of the vicinity unless they are assisted (it is a gated community). I realize the HUGE privilege I have with mobility and try my very best to bring elements of the outside world into theirs (mainly in snack form!). I’ve also been incorporating moments of just stepping outside into their yard to pick leaves or found objects for our artwork. They are all curious, excited, and so willing to break their routines but their circumstances necessitate protection. Unfortunately, in the shelter they quite literally become “sheltered”.

One of my main goals was to heighten my sensitivity and become more self-aware during my interactions with others. I feel this developing each day here. At the end of the day, we are all humans in search of human connections. Last Sunday we surprised two residents with birthday celebrations. The two women ran quickly to their rooms and came back out in full gowns for their celebrations- one of them initially being the shyest resident our first week together. It is a cultural tradition to share the first slice with everyone as the birthday guest feeds it to us by hand. It reminded me of when my mother used to feed us our meals by hand when we were children. 

I (of cooooouurrse) brought my violin with me, so one day we just played music. I encouraged everyone to try to hold the violin and play open strings. It’s always a fun time when someone tries an instrument for the first time. The violin lets you know when you’re not playing it properly, but when you hit the right resonance it sings. They all had that moment while playing. Another woman knew how to play the guitar, so we jammed at the end! I have also come across some old violins and are fixing them up for Tenaganita’s use!

Violin #2 needs some real lovin’…
A short snippet of a piece I’m working on while in Malaysia

It warms my heart to be accepted by these resilient souls. The word “proximity” rings the loudest with me, and I am truly enjoying every minute of being here!

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