The Art of Sharing

A desire to find new ways to enrich the serviced residence experience led to an art exhibition and the sharing of a passion at Somerset Grand Cairnhill.

Issue: Apr 2009


Toh Poh Joo, standing 3960 m above sea-level on a snowcapped peak in the mountainous Bayan-Olgii of Western Mongolia.

Mongolians with smiling eyes.
When David Yap, Residence Manager, Guest Service, Ascott International Management, asked his team to come up with ideas on how to best utilize the public areas of Somerset Grand Cairnhill in order to enhance the experience of its residents, Residence Manager (designate), Corporate Operations, Toh Poh Joo had a novel idea.

Almost a decade ago, Poh Joo had discovered the fascinating charms of Mongolia. "I first discovered Mongolia 10 years ago almost by accident while travelling around Asia. I spent only two days there on that first trip, however, I was so struck by what I saw, I knew I would return," he says.

Poh Joo did return, not once but eleven times after that fateful first visit. Year after year, Poh Joo returned to Mongolia, each time the country becoming closer to his heart. He started doing volunteer building work with the local community, not only in a bid to offer help, but in order to develop an understanding of the culture and traditions of these proud, once nomadic people. Staying for a few months each time, he developed deep and lasting friendships and an in depth knowledge of the Mongolian ethos that would become his unofficial subject of study over the better part of the next decade.

A typical landscape in central Mongolia whereby a few nomadic herders live close to a common water source.

Poh Joo is not a professional photographer, however, while on those early trips he felt the need to communicate what he was experiencing and learning from this beautiful and rugged country. "I decided that film would be the best medium to express what I wanted to share with others," he says. He started snapping frames of the sights he wanted to remember for himself and share with others. When David Yap asked for his team's ideas, Poh Joo thought of his treasured collection of photographs. With these pictures he could take the viewer on a journey to a region not well travelled, introducing him to its people and their culture, a rare opportunity to experience the Mongolian lifestyle. He could share his passion with the residents and they, through his work, could gain an understanding of Mongolia.

The lonely desert.
Together, Poh Joo and Yap developed the concept of creating a cultural exhibition that would be displayed on the Somerset Grand Cairnhill premises for all the residents to enjoy. At the time, the pair had no notion of how the exhibition would be received, however, they were certain it was a worthy experiment and proceeded to temporarily take over the property's squash courts to house the presentation.

The photos displayed reflect the time Poh Joo spent in Mongolia and his deep understanding of the subject matter. Desolate and lonely landscapes seem intimidating with great expanses of punishing desert that can only be described as otherworldly in their beauty. The portraits show deeply lined faces - the result of a hard life in harsh conditions - but the eyes twinkle with a genuine kindness not found often enough in the world today. In addition to the photographs, the exhibition featured Poh Joo's personal collection of cultural artefacts, such as clothing, saddles and tents, all obtained on his travels.

The Start of Things to Come

Arts@Somerset exhibition at Somerset Grand Cairnhill
The Mongolia exhibition received great reviews from the residents. "I am encouraged to go and visit Mongolia," said one guest "Great photographs," another and "Thoroughly enjoyed myself, thank you," another. With such encouraging results, the team decided to extend the reach of the exhibition, subsequently displaying it at Somerset Bencoolen. After receiving wholehearted support, the team have resolved to continue the idea and are currently making plans for a further series of art and cultural exhibitions.

This time, they plan to invite local artists to participate, offering them an opportunity to display and promote their work and possibly even sell a few pieces to the art hungry residents. In addition, they will contact foreign embassies to garner support for this great opportunity for cultural exchange.

Residents posing in Mongolian clothing that was on display as part of the exhibit.
Poh Joo hopes "that other Somerset residence managers might see or hear about this new Arts@Somerset programme" and follow up on the idea with their own art outreach programmes. "Perhaps they will become a regular occurrence in Somersets around the globe," he muses.

A programme that offers managers of Ascott properties the chance to create an inspiring arts programme for its residents, a programme that offers residents an enjoyable and insightful peek into other worlds, a programme that gives artists an opportunity to show their work and foreign countries an opportunity to share their unique cultures - it is something that benefits everyone involved.

Some great ideas, much like photographs, are beautiful in their simplicity, but hard to see. However, once the idea is in focus, everything becomes as clear as a sunny day in Mongolia.

A lonely Mongolian ger is quite a common sight in the Gobi desert where limited pastures keep the nomads away from their neighbours

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