Sat, 20 Jul 2024


Celebrate the other, not animosity: Sabahan artist
Published on: Sunday, May 09, 2021
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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I-Lann and her 10-year work – the ‘Rasa Sayang’ series.
THIS week, we have another surprise discovery for you – a Sabahan artist with a deep, profound insight on how to be good to, what she calls, “the other”.

Yee I-Lann is our latest find.

Given a world gone mad on enmity, the entire planet – not just Malaysians – can learn some incredibly instructive game changing values from this home-grown artistic talent.  

“Slow down, we need to pause where we are and reflect on what is fundamental to us as Sabahans, Malaysians, and perhaps humanity,” she said.

“Let’s celebrate the other, let’s celebrate empathy, our interconnectedness, let’s pay tribute towards others instead of animosity and power play,” she essentially explained to this writer the heart of the matter in her art, as she zealously took this writer through a tour of her current May 2-31 exhibition.

Among the showcased items include weaved mats, hats, ribbon, motifs and abstract embraces dubbed “Yee I-Lann & Collaborators Borneo Heart” held at the Jesselton Square, Open Plaza, Sabah International Convention Centre, where she has three galleries.

In a world that has gone mad with antagonism and animosity, I-Lann rebukes it with a deep felt voice of sanity through her artistic power.    

Listening back to Friday’s interview, it’s hard to imagine she is packed with such acute insight of grace and goodwill into something as disregarded as woven mats, ribbons etc made from bamboo and pandanus straws!

‘Tremendous creative weavers 


So, who is Yee I-Lann? Probably everyone knows her father Datuk Stanislaus Yee and Kiwi mother Amy-Jean Yee but lesser of I-Lann.

“I went to art school in Adelaide at the University of South Australia with major in photography and a minor in cinematography and then I moved back to Malaysia in 1993,” she said. 

“I tried to find a job in KK, talked to the late Datuk Yaman Mus, but I couldn’t get a job in the film industry here because I didn’t have any peers so I moved to KL where I worked in the film industry as a production designer for cinema and worked as full-time artist since 1994 right until now.

“In other words, I have been a full-time artist for 20 years but I also worked in production design for the Malaysian film industry, set up the curriculum Aswara National Art and Heritage school University in KL. Between 2003 and 2008 I set up the production design department for film but then the calling home became very strong.  

“I used to come back all the time but then I ended up buying one-way ticket, staying longer and longer periods with my parents until 2016 and 2017 when I stopped returning to KL and now I live here,” I-Lann traced.   

“After moving back Kota Kinabalu in 2016, I set up a studio called Kota Studio in Pekan Tanjung Aru upstairs with three of us girls and everywhere I go in Sabah I see tremendous creative talents like the weavers that make our handicrafts in Keningau associated with the Pusat Kraft Tangan there.  

“So I wanted to see what we can do with that skill – if we can push it into the arena of contemporary art.” 

English Karaoke mat: ‘Can’t speak 

English but sing fantastic English’ 

That said, she gave me a tour of her exhibits. She started with what she calls the English Karoake Mat woven from split bamboo strips.

“This work is what I call a Karoake map because what happens is because I travel so much around Sabah between Semporna, Keningau, Kota Kinabalu and Kundasang and wherever I go I always hear people sing Karoake and Sabahans are famous singers. 

“So I did a survey among the weavers in Keningau and Semporna to find out what are their favourite karaoke songs in English. But what amazed me was in places like Keningau and Semporna, they may not be great English speakers but fantastic in singing in English! 

 “Songs and oldies like Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly me to the moon; Let me play among the stars’, which people such as my father likes.”

Dusun Karaoke Mat: Tribute to Sabah songwriter 

“And then this on is a bit different – Dusun songs. This is a tribute to Sabah songwriters,” she said.

“Most Sabahans would know all these songs if we sing it. So it’s ‘Tinggi-tinggi Gunung Kinabalu’ (one version registered 3.58 million hits in YouTube), ‘Jambatan Tamparuli’ and Kaamatan songs… 

“They become iconic songs in a way that when we hear them on the radio they make us recognise home. And in my mind they are a little bit like acts of resistance in that you sing it to assert your identity, not the old Malay pop songs or English pop songs but Sabah songs. 

“Does that make sense to you?  You can relate to that, you know it when you hear the songs,” I-Lann poured out.  

“So I work with the weavers. I cannot weave, they are the weavers but then I come to them with these ideas and then this is our product. So I think of this mat is a tribute to the Dusun songs.

“And their skill is incredible, it’s amazing, those were Karaoke in English but these are iconic Dusun songs,” I-Lann poured out her tribute to the sea of great Dusun vocals.   

At this point, I-Lann kept reminding me about the 24-inch black and white photos I took of her when she was eight in the late 70s but still in “perfect condition”. 

Something worth looking 

at behind a mat

Then she showed me a sweep of four of her own pictures. 

“You are a photographer, you essentially know me my whole life this is my kind of photography – it’s heavily manipulated. This is called photoshop. This is called Measuring Project Chapter 1. 

“What I am doing is I am exploring the concept of a Tikar, meaning mat. This is a tikar also. I have been making mats. So this sweep of four images which is Chapter 1 on a series called Measuring Project. These are conceptual ideas that I am looking at behind what is a Tikar, what is a mat.  

“One ethnological photographic design show four root-headed people lying on mat above a profuse dicot root system. 

“It means a mat is a platform or a stage on which life happens, so it is a connection to the environment, ancestry, for story telling, for conference, for discussions.”  

Tables and colonial power play Vs. 

egalitarian power of the mat 

“Historically, in the old days, our Southeast Asia region did not have tables, all traditional communities sat on mats on the ground,” I-Lann noted.

“Tables came to Southeast Asia, including Sabah, via colonial powers. I have come to associate tables as a symbol of administrative power, perhaps more violent than the gun.

“The word for table in Malay’s ‘meja’ and comes from Portuguese and Spanish word for table ‘mesa’. The table in Tikar/Meja, a 60-tikar installation, represents patriarchy and colonialism, which either invites or excludes you from the table of decision-making and, thus, power,” I-Lann explains.

“But all traditional communities in Sabah have mats. All local mother tongues have a different vernacular name for mat associated with their ethnic group and culture – apin (Murut), tepo (Bajau). These mats contain vernacular knowledge passed down through ancestors and generations of women through motifs that can be read,” she added.

“The mats used in daily life activities, rituals and celebrations, act as a platform or stage for community discussions and cultural heritage. These mats are also map-like as they are made from materials found from the environment and geography from which they come. 

“The mat contains intrinsically feminist power, that is communal, egalitarian. We need to come together and share the ‘tikar’ to find solutions for our problems, together,” she said.     

If you are an art buff looking for keen insight, spend time on the huge sweep of Tikar/Meja – mats, mats and mats in which every mat features a table – “mesa”, a word of Portuguese and Spanish origin, ethnologically speaking, which depicts hard colonial patriarchal power that I-Lann had designed to contrast it with the feminist community egalitarian democratic power of the mat and communities, many of whom are the stateless crafters from the Celebes Sulu seas.           

One thing I-Lann ‘most proud of’

“One of the great things about having exhibition collaboratively with friends is that I also want to have a shop so that people I work with they can put their items in the shop and it’s a way of creating an economy, especially during Covid times.” 

She showed mats from Semporna, from Pulau Omadau islands. 

“So what we do is we sell these mats and then we are building a ‘Balai Bikin’. This is the community that I have been working with, their houses are in the boat, very narrow not enough space to work. 

“Profits from the sale of the mats go towards our making hall – our alternative art school. In fact, one of the mats we made in 2018, 2019 is now hanging in the foyer of the Nationaal Art Gallery in Singapore. So we are saving up to build a Balai Bikin ,” I-Lann beamed with satisfaction. 

“One of the things I am most proud of is last year – 2020 – the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was fully employing up to 30 weavers from Semporna and about nine in Keningau when other work was not available. 

“To me, that is part of my ambition – to create sustainable domestic economy using skills and celebrating skills,” I-Lann said.  

Animosity among Malaysians inspired 

a decade-long ‘Rasa Sayang’ series

Then, I-Lann brought me upstairs and at first glance it’s just a 20-metre sweep of irregular red figures on deep blue background, entitled “Rasa Sayang”!               

“Can you see what it is,” she asked.

I said I had no idea. 

“It’s people hugging. So everyone here is hugging and this work started in 2012 and finished this year so it’s a 10-year work. It’s 488 hugs, including my mum and dad, me hugging my dad, me hugging my mom,” I-Lann said.  

But it is pervasive animosity she felt among Malaysians that inspired this marathon 10-year work, she said.  

“So this work started in 2012 and at that time the Bersih rallies were happening and the general election – the GE13. I was living in Kuala Lumpur, there was so much animosity between East and West Malaysia, the Allah issue, and I was getting so fed up with the animosity,” I-Lann noted. 

“So what I did was I asked my friends in East Malaysia and West Malaysia to send me photos to make donations of hugs. So they sent me, I didn’t take the photographs, they sent me the photographs, people from across Malaysia and then I removed all information so that you cannot tell if they are Sabahans or West Malaysians and whether they are male or female, I don’t care. 

“It’s just the humanity of people holding onto each other as a kind of body linguistics and body politic. So with that I started this series called ‘Rasa Sayang’. You can read these words into it so the first line reads: ‘The sun will rise in the east and deliver us from this long night.’  

“The sun rising in the East means Sabah and Sarawak-loh, because our job since the formation of Malaysia was to bring balance. So I was saying bring balance, stop the animosity and then it goes on, such as: ‘In the dark, dark heavy dark night, I was listening to the secret sounds of the earth and I heard you and your sweat became that of fear…’ 

“And then this year it says: ‘Send me your arms in an embrace’ and that’s how it ends in the year when hugging has become outlawed because of Covid where you are not allowed to hug people,” I-Lann elaborated.  

Masterpiece: Murut Lalandau hat 

Next, I-Lann showed me her creative masterpiece, particularly its deep meaning – the seven-head Murut Lalandau hat.

“In the normal Murut hats, you see very short spires and then they have the Lalandau feathers and decorations with beads and materials. 

“But I removed all the decorations and since five spires represent the jungle which is fundamental to the Murut people, I extended these spires which speak about the jungle of the Murut people, about roots, about interconnectedness between people. 

“And then I made a wide work with the hat with the Tagaps Dance Theatre and it talks at young men. 

“This is my most male work, it speaks about young men in contemporary times but using very old symbolism from the Murut people. This work is called Pangkis – the Yell, and in the joining bits, taking elements from the Samazau, the Murut culture and Dusun culture, as land people,” I-Lann explained the intricate connections. 

Tanah & Air – celebrate the other 

as in Sabah tamu  

Three of the prime exhibits I-Lann is emphatic are the Tanah & Air mats from the Tanahairku titles. 

Pointing to the Tanah & Airku Number 3 made in Keningau, she said: 

“This is the third one I have made. We always talk about tanah or homeland but I want us to slow down and think what that means. For me, it means tanah – the Orang Darat, the people from the land and Air – the people from the sea, Orang Laut but the most important part for me is ‘&’ and this is what we forget. Sabah, we  need to help our Orang Darat, our Orang Laut.  

“Only when the two are respected can we have Tanah Air which is homeland. So the most important part to me is (&) because you know our politics you tend to be either land people or sea people. To me we need both. That one is a bit political but it is fundamental to us as Sabahans”.

But Tanahairku No. 2 woven in Semporna is huge - more than twice the Keningau version.

“This is the ‘&’ or dan from which made a motif. So to me, the most important thing is like the tamu , we meet people who are not the same as us so the Orang Tanah meet Orang Air and together with an ‘&’ this one I exploded the ‘&’ so that you become strong and something new comes out which is the partnership with people who are not the same as you. It’s like the concept of the tamu – we celebrate the other.

“So one of the concepts of the exhibition is Sabah’s tamu – people from the hills meet the people from the rivers, meet people from the sea. When we are going to the tamu, we are going to meet someone who is not the same as us. 

“We are going to meet the other. So if I grow padi, I don’t want to buy rice, I want to buy salt, I want to buy fish from the sea. So the tamu in Sabah is a very Sabahan thing where you meet somebody who is not the same and then you exchange knowledges, exchange stories, exchange objects. I think we need to pause, where we are.”     

Emoli mat and a 63m weaved 

ribbon to connect people

“Last but not least – Tikar Emoji, a huge weaving made by a lot of children who were weaving Emoji – the smiling face – all these characters from the phone. 

“They are amazing, very, very skilful people, so when we work with children and the children’s mothers, its one way to generate interest from the younger children because this kind of cartoony characters which they can relate to  and becomes personal,” I-Lann said. 

In Semporna, I-Lann also got the Malaysian Bajau community in Pulau Omadau to weave a 63-metre long ribbon made out of pandanus and rolled it ceremoniously across the shallow sea to a Stateless community.

Again, that was meant to be instructive on celebrating the other – “We are making a bridge with weaving to connect people!”


Dusun karaoke mat: Tribute to local songwriters. 

Motif from ‘&’ to highlight the most important inclusive connector that bond Sabahans strongly.

English karaoke mat – all weaved from split bamboo. 

Cut out the animosity: Embrace each other from the ‘Rasa Sayang’ series. 

I-Lann and her masterpiece – the ‘Murut Lalandau’. 


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