Dear NAFA classmates, thank you for the inspiration to sum up our last three years, and look ahead to the future. Yesterday's convocation was an emotional moment for me. It was hard to look back on the way we've come - a mix of relief, achievement, joys and frustrations remembered, sadness that it's over, and most of all, gratitude.
This is what I shared with our class and guests yesterday.
Good afternoon Mr. Frank Benjamin, Executive Chairman of FJ Benjamin Holdings Limited, Professor Cham Tao Soon, NAFA Board Chairman, Mr Choo Thiam Siew, NAFA President, NAFA Board members, Lecturers, Ladies & Gentlemen.
I am Chan Sze-Wei, a graduate of the Diploma in Dance. I am deeply honoured to have been invited to stand before you today, representing the Class of 2011.
Dear classmates, I am honoured to stand here among you and remember my first day at NAFA, three years and two months ago. On that day, one of my newfound classmates put it perfectly. She was happy to be here, she said, “because I am finally with my people”. Entering art school, we were finally in a space where our passion for art or dance or music or design didn’t make you an oddball or a weirdo. We were finally here, in a space together with other young people who knew that the choice to dedicate yourself to the arts was a legitimate one. And for some of us it wasn’t even a choice, but the recognition of a necessity. We knew exactly why we wanted to be here, the distances we had travelled, and the sacrifices we had made. While others among us started out simply because we didn’t know what else to do with our lives. We signed up for the first of many firsts, with little idea how this journey would change our lives.
For the purposes of this speech, I am really glad to have had the opportunity to get in touch with many friends across all the different faculties represented here today. There were stories that were celebratory and some that were bitter. Each was unique.
We are the ones who are left. We saw many others abandon this path along the way. Some couldn’t handle the mental or physical stress, some needed to support their families, or because they didn’t have the support of their families, or couldn’t muster the financial possibilities to find even $5,000 of school fees a year.
I believe that it’s normal that a number of those who come NAFA take a time-out, take longer to graduate or eventually decide that this isn’t the path for them. Why do I say this? Because I know that a life in the arts and creation is one of the loneliest and most challenging paths that we could possibly choose. Every day that we train, we practice, we create and perform is a day that we have to face ourselves and our weaknesses, and not run away. Allow me to clarify that this NAFA education is not about fun. We come here to NAFA and literally volunteer ourselves for a position where we receive criticism every day, all day, from teachers and peers and the most merciless of all, the voices in our own heads. I am not exaggerating when I say that we have known three years, some of us four, of blood, sweat, tears, and pain. Days of frustration, humiliation and craziness when we wondered if any of what we were doing or learning made sense, when we doubted we would see this course through. We learned that pride and failure were bitter pills to be swallowed day after day, followed by swallowing the advice that this was all for our own good.
But it’s not as if there is no fun at all in this arts education. It is something of a door to a funny landscape where you have to re-wire your sense of fun and find it re-connected to stress, craziness and physical and mental exhaustion. Does that sound like opening week or production week, anyone? We all know that there’s no other kind of fun we’d rather have and no other place that we would rather be.
Also on the other side of this surreal and confusing door are instructions to be different and unique, yet to conform. To learn discipline, technique and professionalism – and yet still try to hang on to a sense of who you are and what’s important to you. All these contradictions have a wonderful old-fashioned charm. It may not be the only way to become an artist. But it is a process that has allowed us to start to discover who we are, and realise potential we never imagined we had. We were given first chances to show our work to Singapore and to the world. We acquired friends and mentors for life, and lessons for life.
My message to my class today is: let’s believe in ourselves and what we have to say. The best gift that we have received in our time here was not the inspiration and praise from our mentors and colleagues. Just as valuable were the criticisms and rejections. This was probably the best preparation that our teachers could give us. Let’s face it. We live in a society that generally doesn’t understand or appreciate what we do. If we’re really lucky, art is viewed as a profitable commodity or convenient propaganda vehicle. When we’re not, we are too often brushed off with the assumption that what we do is self-indulgent, wasteful, incendiary, needlessly provocative or simply meaningless. In a culture where individuals are too often treated as political and intellectual children, a young artist has a particularly heavy burden of proof to carry.
And I am sad to say that while NAFA is a sanctuary for the arts, there were moments where I felt that we couldn’t fully escape those same elements of the real world that want art and artists to be predictable, viable and pleasing.
So it is up to us, and only us, to first believe that what we say is worth saying. And then to go ahead and say it!
Let us not be afraid. There will be little recognition and probably even less remuneration. Don’t let that stop you. Let us not be afraid to make mistakes. Not be afraid to continue to make meaning of our world. To see and remember for society what is beautiful, what is forgotten, what has no voice, what has been censored by fear and by choice. Let us speak and sing, draw and dance, play and produce what is really important to us. Let us not fear to be loved and to be hated. To provoke questions and provoke reactions. To communicate. To touch people’s hearts. To be understood and misunderstood. To surprise and to delight. To put ourselves and our work out there in its truest and most powerful form. Let us not be afraid to let our art guide us.
My dear fellow schoolmates of the Class of 2011, and now my fellow colleagues in the arts, I am proud of you and I am excited for what our future holds. Now it is time for thanks. To our families, our lecturers, and friends. The people who have loved us and supported us all this while. We really could not have done this without you. Let’s now rise and give these very special people a round of thanks and applause.