Conversations@Studio-ID chanced to connect with Joan Marie Kelly, a senior art lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University and we were touched by her focus on making art more meaningful than ever before. In recent days, when Singapore is dealing with measures for safeguarding the foreign migrant workers, we found this piece of video, created during the years of 2018 and 2019 so much more relevant in present times. Through this video, we got an opportunity to connect with the invisible lives around us, that add colour and style to our lifestyle. We hope during these social distancing times, the viewers can relate with the stories of migrants workers, not just in Singapore, but world over.

Change: One Portrait at a Time: The film takes place in Singapore where senior lecturer Joan Marie Kelly at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has conducted her painting class inside a dormitory where 7000 Indian, Bangladesh Myanmar and Chinese foreign workers live. The students and workers engage for the first time through the act of portrait painting, a slow process that puts sight as the central means of engagement between the students and the workers. In an intimate exchange, the artist and sitter stare into each other’s eyes for hours during the painting process. 

Text by Joan Marie Kelly:

Although I took a job teaching at NTU in 2005 I wasn’t a stranger to SEA. My introduction to Southeast Asia began in New York City working as a waitress while attending art school. The cooks in the kitchen were Indonesian, working under the table without proper visas and therefore could not return home and return again to New York. So I went home for the Indonesian men, bringing photographs, letters and stories from family to family all the way down the island of Java. Many years later I have continued this thread through a social art practice initiating artistic encounters with migrant and marginalized communities.

Many years later I have continued this thread through a social art practice initiating artistic encounters with migrant and marginalized communities. I reinvigorate concepts of figure painting and drawing by collaborating with ethnographic practices. Art is a means to witness and engage with the environments and daily lives of communities that are often represented by constructions of the media and misperceptions. In recent years I have worked with incarcerated girls in Fez, Morocco and before that with women in a brothel in Kolkata.

Watching the transforming responses by students when we paint the portraits of foreign workers in the dormitory, has been some of the most satisfying work I have accomplished in Singapore and brings to light how we can do so much more to be inclusive.

Her 2nd publication titled, Invisible Personas is published by Authorhouse which includes a personal narration of 42 images of her paintings, as well as 4 essays’ by New York Art critic David Cohen, artist Sarah Schuster, art historian Dr. Pamela Karimi and Cultural Theorist Dr. Bhaskar Mukhopadyay.

We thank Joan for sharing her works with us and we look forward to more of her  real world of real people in the next few episodes. Her website:


Text by Nidhi Samani