Yee I-Lann

Selections from Like the Banana Tree at the Gate (2016) and An Essay of Hauntings: Dance of the Fragrant Flowers (2016– )

Like the Banana Tree at the Gate: A Leaf in the Storm (2016)
Image courtesy of the artist

The Pontianak is an aggrieved woman. Some of the earliest folklore accounts describe her as the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth, while later accounts allege that her ghost is a result of her violent death inflicted by men. The long, dark hair that identifies the Pontianak is an excessive perversion of feminine beauty, and has become an aesthetic synonymous with monstrous, vengeful women.

In Yee’s work, the Pontianak is a frustrated woman, fed up with living in a misogynist society that is re-writing her history, belittling her female political agency and imposing upon her visual stereotypes of a vengeful Asian woman. The selection of works presented in A Fear of Monsters are from the series Like the Banana Tree at the Gate and a chapter from the series An Essay of Hauntings. Both series are part of Yee’s on-going research project into the Pontianak.

Like the Banana Tree at the Gate (2016)

Ibu or the Beast
The Flaming Womb
A Leaf in the Storm
Canvas banner

The triptych Like the Banana Tree at the Gate is presented in A Fear of Monsters as a banner at the gate entrance to the exhibition. The Pontianaks represented are random people who volunteered to don a long black wig backwards, sit on a chair or act out a Pontianak pose of their choosing. Lined up against the fencing of Kampong Bugis, the Pontianaks are either waiting or frozen in mid-action. The image is a pregnant pause, a suspended moment between and before ‘action,’ subject to potential violence. Vibrating with the frustration of being made to wait, it recalls the frustration that many women  may be familiar with—the frustration of a protest that is suppressed in one’s throat in order to maintain the calm of social propriety.

Landscape (2016)

Recalling landscape paintings and the historical allusion of the female body as ‘motherland,’ the landscape is defined by the ominous dark and unruly hair of the barren Pontianak.  

Ghost in the Banana Tree (2016)

Ghost in the Banana Tree is an artwork consisting of 238 pictures of banana trees from the region. Yee alludes to the indigenous metaphors and allegories described by Michael Dove in his 2011 book The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo which draws upon the 17th century Hikayat Banjar accounts describing the irresistible fatal attraction of natural resource wealth (such as the banana tree) to colonising forces. Like its many associated myths, a banana plant is by nature defined by its historical lineage. The plant has a short life span, producing one bunch of fruit before it dies. However, from its roots, a new plant grows as soon as the first plant dies.

An Essay of Hauntings: Dance of the Fragrant Flowers (2016 – ongoing)

An Essay of Hauntings: Dance of the Fragrant Flowers appropriates a scene from the Indonesian National Sacred Pancasila monument at Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole) in Jakarta, which depicts women from the Indonesian Gerwani feminist movement dancing with fragrant flowers over  seven slain Indonesian army generals. In Yee’s rendition of this scene, the women are imagined as pontianaks, or kuntilanaks in Indonesia. Minimal additional embellishments include a banana leaf held into frame, a woman with exaggerated hair strands and a sprig of rice representing the Gerwani’s focus on women’s role in agriculture and connection to land. What has become popularly known as the Dance of the Fragrant Flowers, was sexualised slander and national myth-making emerging from the 1965 coup that led to the 1965/1966 Mass Killings in Indonesia (also known as the Indonesian Communist Purge). In the myth-making, the Gerwani were framed as monstrous women who had seduced, tortured and killed seven generals. Fabricated by the then Lieutenant General Suharto to facilitate his rise to power, this narrative was then later reiterated as part of a national narrative as seen in the monument this work quotes from. The Gerwani movement continues to be demonised in public discourse today robbing these feminists of their historical importance and contemporary women of the political agency to advocate for feminist values.

Yee I-Lann (b. 1971) lives and works in Kota Kinabalu. Her primarily photomediabased art practice speculates on issues of culture, power and the role of historical memory in our social experience. Such layers necessitate an extensive and multi-layered visual vocabulary drawn from research, historical references, popular culture, archives and everyday objects. Yee graduated from the University of South Australia (Adelaide, Australia) with a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts) in 1993 with a major in Photography and a minor in Cinematography. Yee has experience as a production designer  and in art direction in feature film, working on Hollywood films like “The Sleeping Dictionary” and upcoming Malaysian horror film “Dukun”. As an artist, Yee has exhibited extensively worldwide and her artworks are in major public, corporate and private collections.

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