For someone who grew up in a family of educators and artists - community outreach, moving beyond one's own needs and the arts are all in Dr Esther Joosa's blood. Plus, as she jokingly puts it, she's "a bit of a kaypoh (local lingo for busybody)".
Originally from the Netherlands, the arts education consultant moved to Singapore three decades ago to be with her Singaporean husband. She made the city state her home and became a permanent resident.
She is known for her work with marginalised children and families. Her interest in linking art to language and communication beyond words has also led her to work with individuals with Down syndrome and those who find it hard to articulate their feelings.
"I have met many who, because of the focus on the spoken and written word, have no outlet with which to express themselves," says Dr Joosa. "We tend to judge people by their ability to speak, but don't see that there's so much more, especially in an increasingly visual world."
In 2011, 2014 and 2016, she partnered the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and Tamil Nadu-based Indian social welfare organisation, Buds of Christ, to use the arts to empower social workers – essentially how to use art within their care-giving practices for communities affected by AIDS. Through a series of train-the-trainer workshops – including in situ mentoring – in Tamil Nadu, Dr Joosa shared knowledge and skills with social workers from four non-governmental organisations.
A learning journey
In 2011, when Dr Joosa first worked with Buds of Christ – whose focus is on improving the lives of disadvantaged families and those with HIV – she used masks to help them connect with their emotions. Since then, more than 100 children and parents affected by HIV have participated in follow-on workshops and activities.
She recalls how, when the masks were first introduced as part of the healing process for the HIV-affected community,
"Almost intuitively, the children took over and applied the plaster of Paris masks over their mothers' faces. It became a deeply emotional, mother-and-child bonding experience. Many of these mothers had not been touched for a long time because of their HIV status and live in remote and harsh circumstances because they are ostracised."
As a facilitator, the 60-year-old mother of three adult sons knows full well the significance of her role. "You can cause further hurt. Working in this process requires sensitivity and commitment and cannot be tokenistic. Extreme care needs to be exercised".
Jeyapaul Sundar Singh, founder director of Buds of Christ, admires Dr Joosa's efforts and commitment in the organisation's work with children and mothers living with HIV. "Dr Joosa's contribution has helped us to know our children's hearts. Their joy, their dreams, their challenges were revealed through the art work that she facilitated. Art can help us understand and encourage one another towards empowerment.
"Similarly, the work with mothers living with HIV helped our widow mothers (from rural communities) to express themselves. Their struggles with being a widow, the pressures from the culture and tradition were expressed through their art. They were able to understand and support one another through these exercises," Mr Singh added.
For Dr Joosa herself, the processes affirmed her belief that volunteering is about building something for others where they can be empowered and move on by themselves.
Yet, learning a person's culture takes an enormous amount of time. On each trip, she discovered a bit more about the Indian culture.
"Culture is about social values, societal attitudes, community aspirations and the symbols they use," she explains. "You cannot learn them straight away."
Enduring friendships and powerful experiences
Since her first encounter, Dr Joosa has kept in touch with the Buds of Christ community and beyond.
"I have seen women moving back into society and a girl afflicted with HIV come out to talk about it openly. The significance is that we can learn in so many small ways from each other. I have learnt so much from these stories. They are powerful because they show that you can cross boundaries and that people can change their circumstances."
Ms Geetha, a workshop participant and HIV-positive mother, agrees, saying: "This programme gave me hope and clarity. When (Dr Joosa) came for Mother's Day and made my children share, I almost felt like crying – how much love my daughters had for me when they said they understood my problems. It helped me better understand my children and be more expressive with my affection towards them."
Of cultural heritage and identity
Dr Joosa says that something else happens in the process – the women show how rich India's cultural heritage is, painting a kolam (an iconic Indian floor drawing made of coloured flour) but using symbols of their HIV status to communicate their message. These symbols ranged from the Aids ribbon to representations of their ART (anti retro viral) therapy. "A culture was being brought to the surface, their identity was not just as victims of HIV but of women and Indian citizens proud of their heritage," she reveals. "That, to me, brought a different focus to these women – strong, willing to talk about their illness and fighting for their children."
For Dr Joosa, art has the uncanny ability to create connections and foster sharing among people. "It leads to a mutual respect and acknowledgement of our different values and identities."
Reflecting on the lessons she has learnt, Dr Joosa believes "there are moments when you see your own humanity," she says. "So who learns the most? I think it's me. It's a strange process. It's giving yet very selfish. It's enriching, but most of all, very humbling."