These dreamers are not defined by their physical ailments

By Bras Basah Bugis on Jan 2017

Dreams do not discriminate. They belong to people of all shapes and sizes, ethnicities, gender and religion. As John Lennon put it in his song Imagine, “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one”.

Meet the Dreamcatchers, a group of youths from National University Hospital's adolescent chronic illness peer support group. Aged between 13 to 35 years old, they are dreamers who do not let their physical ailments define them.

Despite living with various forms of childhood chronic illnesses including congenital and rare genetic conditions, they continue to dream big and aspire to great heights.


Project Dreamcatchers 2016 - Group photo of youth-artists with the mentors.
Image source: Project Dreamcatchers

Inspired by the courage and hope that these individuals carry in their hearts, the National University Hospital’s Paediatrics department hopes to raise awareness that childhood chronic illnesses are not disabling through this support group.

Since its inception in 2011, the group has come a long way from producing newsletters to organizing its first annual visual art exhibition - Project Dreamcatchers in 2012. This year’s edition, titled Into the Looking Glass has been honoured with an invitation to be a parallel project of the current Singapore Biennale.

For the first time this year, the youth-artists also received mentorship from creative professionals. Past years' mentors had comprised of homegrown artists only. The result is 14 emotionally evocative artworks that capture the triumphs and tribulations of the Dreamcatchers, lending the audience a glimpse into the inner worlds of the youth-artists and a selected chapter of their stories.


In My Life, I Love Them All in clay medium by Adelyn Koh
Image source: Project Dreamcatchers

For instance, 15-year-old Adelyn Koh’s In My Life, I Love Them All is a tribute to her family and supporters which delivers a timely reminder to treasure your loved ones. Judging from the cheery clay work alone, it is difficult to believe that this was created by a young girl who suffers from Anterior Segment Dysgenesis, a congenital anomaly that affects her sight. Far from despair, the artwork captures hope and resilience.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a mixed media installation by 27-year-old Toh Keat Siang’s entitled Heart, which comprises a light projection of the silhouette of a heart. Made out of medical items and memorabilia held flimsily on wire, one gets a sense of the fragility of life that Toh, who suffers from complex congenital cyanotic heart disease, and his fellow Dreamcatchers experience.


Heart, a mixed media installation by Toh Keat Siang
Image source: Project Dreamcatchers

Personal and inspiring, the artworks tell stories of courage and hope in the face of pain, and bear testament to the Dreamcatchers’ resilience and will to live meaningfully. The exhibition’s continual growth, success and recognition attest to the collective’s unwavering faith in the patients and belief in engaging and seeing the patients for who they truly are, beyond their medical conditions.

Miss Bernadette Png, assistant manager at National University Hospital’s Department of Paediatrics, explained, “Art is an accessible medium of expression for our patients to convey their emotions, aspirations and struggles. Patients need not have to be skilled or artistically-trained but through the art-making process, we discovered some hidden talents and another facet of our patients.”

Key to the Dreamcatchers’ motivation is to change the mindset that childhood chronic illnesses are disabling. Instead, art serves as a medium that emboldens and gives courage, as Calvin Pang, a mentor for Project Dreamcatchers 2016 explained.

“By engaging in the process of art making, the artists are already making a statement that childhood illness is not in any way disabling. It takes a lot of commitment and courage because there is always some vulnerability involved when the work becomes introspective, an underlying theme of the artworks. When you finally encounter the artworks, you will actually find yourself looking at the artists and not their illnesses.”

And through their art, the Dreamcatchers embody the resounding belief that ultimately, it is not your physical ailments that define who you are. If you can dream, you can also believe, build, achieve and lead purposeful lives.

Currently housed at the Singapore Art Museum, Project Dreamcatchers 2016 - Into the Looking Glass will run till 22 January 2017. This year’s exhibition is a parallel project of the Singapore Biennale 2016.