One boy’s journey with his potato Chip characters and fibre friends
“People tend to be very intimidated by the word art,” says artist Mary Bernadette Lee. “They tend to associate it with a certain image. But art can exist outside formal institutions, outside the stereotypical art gallery.”
Art has to be accessible – and that’s why she has no qualms setting up a makeshift studio space of sorts in the corridor of a humble housing flat in Henderson.
Seated on a wheelchair beside her is young mentee Tamimi Pohan, born with brittle bone disease. The 14-year-old works slowly, carefully using a lino cutter to cut out the shape of a durian. The afternoon rays of the sun fall slanting on their table, casting a honey-gold hue over the scene.
Working with marginalised communities and giving them a voice has always been a guiding philosophy of Mary’s artistic practice.
She first reached out to Tamimi’s family after watching Tamimi being featured on a Channel NewsAsia documentary. She was compelled to act after learning about his dream to be an artist.
Even from a young age, Tamimi’s creative flair was evident, said his mother Sarina Siregar. Meek and soft-spoken, he preferred to express his thoughts on paper, creating vibrant worlds through his comics. An avid gamer and TV-watcher, Tamimi’s routine is largely confined to home and school due to his condition.
It was through these sketches that Tamimi created the Chip character – a spiky blue-haired potato chip and a spunky attitude – which he says is an “avatar” of himself. Chip often goes on imaginary adventures, from roaming the Potatoland planet, going supermarket shopping or battling an evil nemesis.
Through weekly art lessons in late 2019, Mary worked with Tamimi on a wide range of exercises, including line drawings, contouring, painting and paper mache, as part of a tie-up with Ketemu Project, an art collective and social enterprise. It culminated in a mixed-media installation with Tamimi, where Mary examines disability by analysing the support systems of family and one’s own consciousness.
She said, “My goal is to bridge between art and expression, and help develop their own voice.”
This lino printing project is the latest collaboration between the pair as Mary felt that she could challenge Tamimi further. She hoped to expose him to something different, but still keep true to his interest in drawing and the digital realm like games.
During the initial brainstorming stage, Tamimi brought Mary on a virtual tour to his apple orchard in the Animal Crossing. Inspired by the game’s avatars, he designed a series of fruit shapes like a durian, grapes and watermelon – which could very well double up as Chip’s “fibre friends”.
While it was tricky at first, Tamimi soon settled into the rhythm of cutting these shapes out. Mary observed that he is able to move the lino knife more smoothly and is aware of how to place it. “The more practice he has, the more daring he is with cutting more complicated designs,” she said.
Finally, Tamimi got to see his fruits come alive with vivid colours through printing on paper and fabric. “I like it because it’s very fun and interesting,” he said with a shy smile.
In the meantime, Tamimi has big plans for Chip. He has even developed his own merchandise line, incorporating Chip into a T-shirt, car decals, tote bag and plushie. He advertises these on Potato Shop, a Facebook page where he conducts live sales with his father to boost the family’s income and for his hospital and transport funds.
It’s still early, but Mary is hopeful that Tamimi will be able to take his hobby forward in a more professional setting in future.
“For me, it’s more important now that he has fun with the art-making process, with different materials, and gets new ideas… Then the creative inspiration will gradually come,” she said.
COLLABORATOR BIO Born into a family of four, Tamimi Syawalludin Pohan was diagnosed with a genetic disorder of the bones from birth (Osteogenesis imperfecta). Each of his family members suffer from a chronic illness. School and home are Tamimi’s routine, alongside mobile games and manga. In times when he is bored, his imaginary blue-haired friend Chip makes an appearance in his drawings and they go on wild and wacky adventures. The 14-year-old is on his way an artistic freedom that his mentor Mary is helping to hone.
ARTIST BIO Mary Bernadette Lee is an artist, educator, illustrator, co-creator. Her works manifest in paintings, illustrations, linocut prints, monoprint prints, woodcut prints, clay sculptures, textile installation, and publication.She collects people’s experiences through collaborations through artist-led programmes exploring an inquiry into relationships relating to Self, Identity, Community and Home. Mary graduated from the National University of Singapore with a BA in English Literature and Communications & New Media in 2006. She also graduated from Nanyang Technological University School of Art, Design and Media in 2014 with a BFA (Hons) in Visual Communication.