In conversation with: Safiah Sulaiman on the impact of the arts


13 September 2018

With less than four hours of daylight every day, the nights are perpetual for the citizens of Ólafsfjörour, Iceland, during the winter months. Aware that the biting cold and inky sky were going to be her constant companion for the next four months, Safiah Sulaiman was not fazed - the artist residency with Skammdegi Festival was a once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

"Uplifting", she said, would be the word to encapsulate her four months experience there. The winter blues did not hit her once for each day was filled with fruitful encounters with local residents and the 19 other participating, international artists. Beyond helping out with festival management, Safiah also conceived I thought about you when I was here: Ólafsfjörour - a collaborative project that involved students from local school, Menntaskólinn á Tröllaskaga, creating art about their homeland.

Safia with student from MTR Safiah is seen here with a student from Menntaskólinn á Tröllaskaga (MTR). Photo courtesy of MTR.

Youth arts education, socially engaged art and intercultural communication via the arts - these are long-running interests that permeates Safiah's career. Her wish to propel change in these areas saw her pursuing an MA Arts and Cultural Leadership programme with LASALLE.

In my overseas stints, I was very impressed with how self-sufficient arts managers are. They understand from the get-go the limitations within the sector, and thus have devised innovative ways to work around these issues. This was something I wished to learn more about and apply in the work I do.

– Sufiah Sulaiman

From handling education outreach duties at The Necessary Stage, to performing marketing at T.H.E Dance Company, assisting with curation during Next Wave Festival (Australia), and managing the first edition of international storytelling festival StoryFest (Singapore), Safiah has made a home for herself within the arts and is eager to do more for the industry. She shared, "The arts can have a lasting and empowering impact on one's life, and I would like as many people as possible to be able to experience this." 

In her current position within the Esplanade's programming team, Safiah works with MA Arts & Cultural Leadership alumna Faith Tan, Head of the Esplanade's Dance and Theatre department, to enrich and engage people's lives through the arts. The recent Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts 2018, and upcoming da:ns festival 2018, are just some of the projects Safiah manages.

She reflected: "What people experience is the result of months of preparation and a combined team effort. On the back-end, we collaborate with colleagues from administration, operations, creative, finance, development, marketing etc. The case studies, best practices, frameworks and theories I've encountered at LASALLE was therefore useful in helping me see how these different units can better unify to realise a vision."

Study trip to National Taiwan University of Arts MA Arts and Cultural Leadership candidates on an overseas study trip to the National Taiwan University of Arts' Graduate School of Arts Management and Cultural Policy.

Beyond this, the friendships she has made in school also proved invaluable. Her expanded network now allows her to seek the advice and expertise from creatives in various disciplines, a resource especially handy given that she works in one of the busiest art centres in the world.

The ability of the arts and cultural economies to drive future growth is widely acknowledged by governments the world over, but there still exists pockets of individuals who are yet unconvinced by this. Safiah recognises this challenge, which is probably why she is zealous in her efforts to create an environment for the arts to thrive.

In observing what she has accomplished and hopes to further achieve in the future, one is reminded of a quote by Mark Twain: "Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life." Leaders such as Safiah are in-demand today as the burgeoning creative industries continue to grow, and Singapore is fortunate to have her as one of our own.

Cover image: Safiah with the rest of the Esplanade's programming team who were behind Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts 2018. Photo by Daniel Halim, courtesy of Shiraz Sallim.