Yee I-Lann: “Maybe a socially-engaged art practice entails not turning away, making space for others and ‘letting go’…” – S.E.A. Focus

Yee I-Lann: “Maybe a socially-engaged art practice entails not turning away, making space for others and ‘letting go’…”

Community and collaboration in the Sabahan artist’s work

Since 2018, Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann, who is represented by Silverlens, has been collaborating with communities of weavers to make tikar, mats woven from bamboo or the Pandanus plant. They hail from two geographies: the inland community of Sabahan Busun and Murut weavers in the town of Keningau, and the sea community of Bajau Sama Dilaut weavers based on the islands of Semporna. This project speaks to a type of socially-engaged art practice where personal history, local knowledge, critical theory, and community engagement meet.

Yee I-Lann, with weaving by Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong, Kak Budi, Kak Roziah, Adik Darwisa, Adik Enidah, Adik Dela, Adik Asima, Adik Dayang, Adik Tasya, Adik Alisya, Adik Erna, ‘Tepo Aniya Nombor Na’ (Mat with a Number), 2020, Bajau Sama DiLaut Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye. Photo by Andy Chia. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.


Though it is commonly found in tourist markets across Southeast Asia today, the tikar is more than a craft product in I-Lann’s eyes. She sees the woven mat as a platform for communal gathering, where everyone sits together on the same level. The symbol of the mat is juxtaposed against that of the table, an invention introduced to Southeast Asia through the legacy of colonisation. For the artist, the table represents administrative power and hard patriarchal control. As a piece of architecture, the table creates hierarchies by elevating and excluding certain groups. This is opposite of the egalitarian, grassroot platform of the mat which is almost always woven by women.

Yee I-Lann, ‘TIKAR/MEJA’, 2020, installation view at Art Basel Unlimited 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

This relationship between the mat and table comes together in the monumental ‘TIKAR/ MEJA’ series which has been exhibited internationally in Manila, Kota Kinabalu, Seoul, Basel, New York and other cities. ‘TIKAR/MEJA’ is the work which marks the start of I-Lann’s ongoing collaboration with the weavers. While their patterns and colours vary, a single standing table floats in the centre of each mat in the series. It suggests that the table can be rolled up, or “eaten” by the mat like in a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Sharing and making space

For I-Lann, conversations are at the heart of a socially-engaged art practice. “Maybe it entails not turning away, taking part in something, embracing responsibility and care,” she says. “It is about building relationships and communities, sharing, and making space for others for collaborative actions and ‘letting go’.” They are actions of inclusion towards collective benefit. Notably, the names of weavers who have worked on each piece are woven into the artwork, acknowledging their labour and essential roles as co-creators and storytellers. This system of mutual support is strengthened through initiatives that invest in the community, such as the building of the Balai Bikin, a community hall next to the weavers’ water village.

‘TIKAR/MEJA’ work in progress, 2018. Photo by the Pulau Omadal Community. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

Weavers Kak Roziah, Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong and Kak Koddil with ‘Tikar Reben’, 2020. Photo by Andy Chia.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

On her “other life” in the film industry

When asked about her experience as a production designer for feature films, I-Lann comments that both practices involve designing spaces for ideas and stories to unfold. She adds, “I feed off popular culture and what Milan Kundera called ‘political kitsch’ ,– how to activate and make short-cuts in knowledges and visual languages that a wide public already understands for your own propaganda!” I-Lann also describes film-making as a team sport that often happens under trying circumstances. The key is to create a conducive atmosphere for collaboration, in order to sustain energy and excitement towards the project. 

Yee I-Lann, with weaving by Kak Roziah, Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong, Kak Koddil, ‘Tikar Reben’, 2020, Bajau Sama DiLaut Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye. Photo by Andy Chia.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

Yee I-Lann, ‘Balai Bikin’, 2023, installation view at Rumah Lukis, Kuala Lumpur.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

‘Borneo Heart’ in Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur

The themes of community and collaboration are also extended into the presentation of this recent body of work. ‘Borneo Heart’ is an expansive travelling exhibition that started in I-Lann’s hometown of Kota Kinabalu in 2021. Hosted across several venues in Kuala Lumpur, its second iteration in 2023 coincided with Malaysia’s 60th year of nationhood. ‘Borneo Heart’ is an invitation to sit at the mat, or in the artist’s words “a space where things get activated”. Beverly Yong, Director of RogueArt and curator of ‘Borneo Heart’, highlights how “the exhibition itself has enveloped supporting institutions and independent teams and professionals” as the tikar works engage different practices and communities. The gesture of bringing together East and West Malaysia through this project carries strong personal significance to the artist who has deep roots in both geographies. 

Yee I-Lann, ‘Borneo Heart’, 2023, exhibition view at Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

the sun will rise in the east

The period of organising ‘Borneo Heart’ was also one of introspection for I-Lann as she looked back on more than a decade’s work consolidated in her latest monograph the sun will rise in the east. Edited by Beverly Yong, who also worked on the artist’s previous monograph Fluid World, the publication is a collection of primary materials that informed I-Lann’s practice from 2011 to 2023. In many ways, this book is also a reflection of their journey through a friendship of more than 20 years, documenting the many ways in which they have worked together.

To learn more about the long-time collaboration, watch here for a recording of ‘Community and Collaboration’ at SEAspotlight 2024, a conversation between Yee I-Lann and Beverly Yong, Director, RogueArt, moderated by June Yap, Director, Curatorial, Programmes and Publications, Singapore Art Museum.