A Singapore artist and her Filipino nanny on the meaning of family
A photographic exhibition by 26-year-old visual artist Sarah Isabelle Tan will have you reflecting on what family and home means. The show is a bittersweet farewell to her Filipino nanny, Letecia B. Ducusin, 59, who has taken care of the Tan family for 26 years and will be retiring this year.
The exhibition, on from 18 Mar to 25 Apr at visual arts space Objectifs in Middle Road, is titled Alaga. The word means “a person being taken care of” in Tagalog, the nanny’s mother tongue, and it is also her affectionate nickname for Tan, whom she has looked after since Tan was three months-old.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able to trace the intimate, heartwarming relationship between the pair through a series of photographs and handwritten messages by both the artist and her nanny. One photograph depicts Letecia doing the laundry, while another photo is an excerpt of a diary entry placed side-by-side against a photo of the nanny carrying Tan as a baby. Together, they show how little moments spent together, as well as the nuances and subtleties between two people, alter the dynamics of the relationship from caretaker and dependent, to family.
In December 2019, Tan made a trip back to her nanny’s hometown in the Philippines during the early stages of thinking through this work. She was taking photographs, listening to stories told by Letecia and her relatives, while exploring the landscape of her nanny’s hometown. During her time there, they also found her Letecia’s old family photo albums in storage, and looked through them together. This opened up a new dimension of the project which included revisiting personal and family archives, stories and memories. The photos in the exhibition were made over the course of 2020 in Singapore mainly in spaces within the home, alongside audio recordings and texts written by both Letecia and Tan herself.
For Tan, collaborating with Letecia on the exhibition over the last six months has allowed her to turn the fleeting and mundane moments of their lives spent together into something more – “something I can hold on to in remembrance and celebration of a wonderful woman who has cared for me all my life.”
The experience has also crystallised the meaning of family and home for her. She says: “It never occurred to me before just how much our lives were entwined. My nanny feels like home to me; a safe space that I can always return to.”
The exhibition is held in conjunction with the Objectifs Documentary Award 2020. Tan was the winner of the Objectifs Documentary Award, a competition to spotlight talent in its Emerging category. The award comes with a solo photo show on any topic about the photographer’s community and a six-month mentorship with a professional photographer. Tan was mentored by Manila-born documentary photographer Veejay Villafranca.
When Sarah brought Letecia along to a preview of her exhibition, her nanny was deeply moved.
She also laughed it off and said: “Will people want to come and see my photos? Are you sure? Later they say your aunty so old!”
Tan adds that she has never known a life without Letecia, and she cannot imagine how different life would have been without her. She says: “She will always be my aunty, even if she is no longer staying with us, and I will always be her alaga, even when she stops looking after my daily needs.”