Through her works, highly-contextualized composites made from various fragments of images carefully stitched together, Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann expresses her views on the socio-political issues that surround her — whether it be on Sabahan politics, feminism, or the general colonial historicity. After being exhibited around our Southeast Asian and Asian neighbors, it is a pleasure to have her here in the Philippines for the first time, at the heart of one of the business districts in the capital — the Ayala Museum.
During the opening talk for the exhibition, I-Lann emphasized that her medium is actually not photography. Her artistic process involves taking photographs, but she freely uses alternative sources, such as archives, the Internet, and the like. Her magic lies in how playful, yet meaningful, she makes out of these various material. It is through this approach that she gets to inject her nationalistic and feminist ideas for the viewer’s consumption.
In her piece Fluid World (2010), for example, she took snips of small satellite images and laboriously stitched them together to create the image of the region at the center of the batik-style digitally-printed fabric. In how she illustrated the world — from the fringes of East Africa in the West to the boundaries of Western Americas in the East — Sabah, which resides at the northern part of the multinational island Borneo, lies at the center, possibly referring to its figurative position during the territorial disputes between the Philippines and Malaysia several years ago. The artist wanted to accentuate the irony Sabah experienced as the prime entity affected during the cross-national discussions, where in they were treated like — how the artist put it — a “free piece of real estate”. The artist stood for proper consultation with Sabah during these moments, as she deems it essential that Sabah’s decision — not of the two states fighting over it — is of chief importance.
Similar to Fluid World, the works in the Kinabalu series also tackle sociopolitical issues within Sabah. With the mystical Mt. Kinabalu ever-present at the backdrop, I-Lann perhaps wants to assert that the spirit of the Sabahan will not grow tired of protesting to achieve deserved fairness.
In Kopivosian (2007), which literally translates to ‘hello’ in the language of Kadazan, the native race of Sabah, the artist transports the building of the Ministry of Finance, which is currently in the administrative center of Putrajaya in peninsular Malaysia, to Sabah. In here, she protests over the preferential treatment of the government to peninsular Malaysia over Eastern Malaysia in Borneo with regards to financial allocation and state development projects.
On the other hand, the artist presents a segment of the mythical origin story of the Kadazans in Huminodun (2007). Ponompulan, the son of Kiniongan, one of the creators of everything that inhabits the world, rebelled against his heavenly father and corrupted the minds and hearts of humankind. As punishment, Ponompulan was banished and humankind were sent seven plagues, the last of which is severe famine. Humanity realized their sins and asked for forgiveness; to save humanity from death, merciful Kiniongan sacrificed his only daughter Huminodun, her body parts divided and planted to grow rice. In the artist’s work, a lamenting Huminodun is presented on a damaged land, figuratively referring to the damage done by Malaysians with political power who championed monoculturing palm oil — the use of Sabahan land exclusively to plant palm oil, a high-return crop, leaving no good land for other crops and replacing forests as well. Furthermore, Sabah became the generator of revenues, at its own expense, only for the capital to profit from. The figure shows the mythical deity’s lamentation over the damaged ecosystem, perhaps regretting the sacrificed body, and the life child she is supposed to bear.
A common whimsical figure in the artist’s works is the kerbau, the local term for water buffalo, which she adores so much. She believes that it is in the buffalo’s stolid persistent, bordering stubborn, spirit when it blocks off the road that her personality in her art is best likened at. She is as strong, persistent and consequently bothersome when she voices out her opinions about matters she has a stand on. Perhaps, Kerbau (2010) also holds the artist’s hope for more Sabahan, more specifically women — as the buffaloes in the work are all female kerbaus — to take their solid stance in pressing issues, together and in solidarity.
In Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I and II (2009), I-Lann presents ethnographic photographs of the primitive Malaysian man, primarily used before to study a specimen race, other than its own. Photographs like these were presented to Western circles, giving them a view of the nature of the people outside their race, further emphasizing the ‘otherring’ perspective of the West to the then arguably uncivilized men. The artist wanted to free these men from the condescending gaze of the ethnographer and the West in general; and thus literally freed the Malaysian male from its capture.
Perhaps the grandest of the pieces in the exhibition, Tabled (2013) presents digitally printed images of common men on ceramics, cleanly laid on a long dining table. Dining halls had always been important venues during the colonial era, as these are where ‘big, influential men’ — orang besar in Malay — discuss economic and political agenda that not only concern their own country, but concern the countries and people under their colonial rule. The dining table where these printed plates were originally exhibited was the one from the dining hall of the ‘Big Man’ Willem van Loom, founder of the Dutch East India Company, which is the main author of the colonial conquests in Southeast Asia. In her provocative work, the artist dwells in the complex topic of the ruling group — an ever present phenomenon during the colonial era, which is still present now, although in subtler ways. The artist expresses her distaste at how the labor of common men actually brings food into the plates of these greedy men.
The exhibition will run from the 27th of August to the 30th of August to the 2nd of October, 2016 at the Ayala Museum, Makati City. This exhibition is in partnership with the Silverlens Galleries.