Yee I-Lann: Flipping the witch

Leading Malaysian contemporary artist Yee I-Lann primarily works with photography and video, producing works that re-examine the role and meaning of culture, power and historical memory in contemporary society.

During this year’s OzAsia Festival, Lee’s digital photo-collage work, Like the Banana Tree at the Gate, is on display at the Festival Centre.

“Much of my practice draws from local knowledge, a kind of linguistics, whether that be through folklore, popular culture, historic imagery found in colonial archives or tropes found in Southeast Asian cinema and then attempts to unpack this for contemporary commentary,” Yee says.

Born in 1971 in Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, Malaysia) to a father with Chinese and indigenous Ka-dazan ethnic roots and a mother from New Zealand, Yee left school in the first year of junior high and was home-schooled by her mother. She moved to Australia in 1985 and studied at the University of South Australia, and then studied at the Central St. Martin School of Art in London. She currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur.

Seated Women series, Yee I-Lann, Photo: Artist and Silverlens Galleries

Through working in the Malaysian film industry as a production designer since the late 1990s Yee realised how storytelling can be used to reflect or disrupt accepted ideals. “Folktales and ghost stories illustrate how our societies create and are our monsters,” she says. “Pending interpretation, or reinterpretation, these stories allow diverse representations of the female experience.”

The triptych Like the Banana Tree at the Gate depicts a common folklore character called a Pontianak (in Malaysia and Singapore) or Kuntilanak (in Indonesia). The Pontianak is a vengeful female spirit with long black hair, who only turns beautiful to trap men. Yee reframes this supernatural witch into a contemporary figure to explore issues of social image, gender, power and Malaysia’s social political landscape.

“This triptych holds pregnant that moment between stillness and extreme violence,” Yee explains. “It speaks of societal fear, fear of a woman perceived as uncontrollable, aware of her own power and agency and an irrational fear men and women have towards ideals of feminism.”

Yee uses female folkloric figures from the past to comment on current political issues in particular feminist issues, in this instance she is reinterpreting the Pontianak/Kuntilanak as a feminist icon.

“A female figure on display is nearly always political. Female agency chronicled through our folktales helps describe societal expectations in our traditional and thus contemporary communities,” she says.

Yee’s work uses historic imagery and folklore as a means to make commentary on contemporary issues, particularly political issues in Southeast Asia.

She says: “Pay attention to Southeast Asian folktales, they reveal much about our societies and attitudes. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these tales will never get old. One should pay attention to how these tales are told and depicted.”

Yee I-Lann
Like the Banana Tree at the Gate
Gallery 1, Festival Theatre Foyer
Wednesday, October 24 to Friday, November 30
ozasiafestival.com.au

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