To hug is to hold someone close to your body with your arms. Beyond this physical contact, which has become rare in these times, a hug implies a gesture of reconciliation and acceptation. At Centre for Heritage Arts & Textile, “Until We Hug Again”, Yee I-Lann’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, the artist invites us to embrace differences as well as traditions and to resist attempts of cultural assimilation.
TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile
Born in 1971, artist Yee I-Lann lives and works in her homeland of Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah in Malaysia. The history of this region, located on the northern part of Borneo, is complex and paved with the dominant influence of various rulers, from the Brunei Empire and the thalassocracy of Sulu to the colonial powers of Portugal, Spain and Great Britain. Today, the territory is still caught up in geopolitical tensions and local cultures are weakened by globalisation and by the state’s wish to build a unique Malay identity. It is with this context in mind that one should approach Yee’s practice and recent artworks that are embedded in her desire to move away from these systems of power and exclusion.
Since 2018, Yee has been collaborating with indigenous sea-based and mountain-based communities from Sabah, whom have nourished mutual animosities for centuries, exacerbated by the colonial rulers. The artist brought them together in 2019 for the first time when she asked them to collaborate on Tikar-A-Gagah, her first woven art piece. The women of the islands have a long tradition of weaving with the leaves of the pandanus palm which they dye with colourful tones. However, the people on the mountainous land would rather weave bamboo stripes and use natural dyes to create domestic accessories or mats. Each community wished to celebrate its own specific indigenous materials and techniques. Consequently, Yee designed a two-sided mat that respected their disparities, while combining them together in a single work.
At Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), Yee’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong “Until We Hug Again” highlights this spirit of resilience and reconciliation, particularly exemplified in the large handwoven mat (or tikar) hung high from the ceiling of The Mills’ central hall on which it reads “Tanah & Art” (Earth & Water) in reference to these communities, now reconciled. The mat itself symbolises a place for meeting and exchanges. Most of the woven pieces exhibited are mats of different formats. For Yee, this domestic and traditional object, made by groups of women, stands against the domination of male and colonial powers. Inside the gallery space, a series of these mats in smaller formats feature tables and desks, a pattern typical of Yee’s practice. While the mats represent local, egalitarian relations, the tables refer to the hierarchical and centralised administrative and educational frameworks imposed on Sabah and, more largely, on Southeast Asia, by successive colonial rulers.
As a colonial symbol, the desk is a key motif of an earlier photo-montage series, aptly displayed in the same space. Picturing Power (2013), from a series of eight, shows how men carrying tables on their head arrived in a blank landscape and progressively modelled it according to their own system of knowledge and ideology. Here, the violent effects of colonisation are radicalised, with the black figures invading literally and metaphorically an empty space that poses no resistance. More subtle is the recent series of black and white photographs Measuring Project: Chapter 1 (2021) placed adjacent, in which four women, lost in dry landscapes, seem to reconnect with the soil and their roots. In one of the images, their entwined black hair recalls the figure of the Pontianak, a dead vampire woman with long unruly hair well-known in Malay culture. Nowadays it represents a creature that defies order and pre-defined identities.
The whole exhibition is an ode to diversity, a statement that is clear from the start with hundreds of family portraits from various ethnic communities of Malaysia welcoming the public in the first room of the exhibition space. Through Rose-Coloured Glasses (2002) features archival photographs from Malacca-based, Chinese-owned Pakard Photo Studio taken between 1977 and 1982. The few common backgrounds are fake, yet the ensemble constitutes a collective memory of Malaysia. Are nations building their identity on props? The series recalls Benedict Anderson’s concept of the socially constructed nature of any national identity, but it values above all the importance of all the people who contribute to it: the banality of the backgrounds contrast strongly with the amazing singularity of each photographed individual.
Most of Yee’s artworks feature opposite parts, patterns or material that are combined to create a whole: her conception of society is very much imbued with the thought of Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant who conceived the term “archipelagic thinking” in order to combine the specificities of the local with the necessity of the global. A thinking of the diversity that unfolds according to a multitude of egalitarian relationships. The artist’s vision could be crystallised in her video performance Tikar Reben (2020) in which a 63-metre-long ribbon woven by women from a sea community has been unfurled across the water, binding various floating villages and stilt houses together. It symbolises the deep connection that links the sea faring people who share their own system of knowledge and ways of life across borders.
Cleverly curated by Takahashi Mizuki, CHAT’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, this exhibition aptly allows the audience to grasp the artist’s socio-political concerns and engagement. Beyond the topic of textile and weaving, which is at the heart of CHAT’s mission, it also connects Sabah with Hong Kong as two sites of resilience. Woven in Chinese—a challenge for the indigenous women—a large mat featuring lyrics of a canto-pop song invites members of the public to sing inside the gallery space. Deeply rooted in local communities, songs travel instantaneously across territories and defy culture’s homogenisation. A great way to activate and share traditions.
Yee I-Lann: Until We Hug Again
1 September – 7 November 2021
Centre for Heritage Arts & Textile, Hong Kong