A Moment with Diana Lui

Although hailing from Petaling Jaya, Paris-based Diana Lui has spent almost seventy per cent of her life on foreign lands chasing an education, adopting different cultures and languages while making a name for herself as a fashion and portrait photographer who now exhibits largely in the western hemisphere. Today, she has brought her exquisite, elegant photographs of Malaysian women dressed in their traditional clothes to Penang. Her month-long photographic exhibition, Totem, is part of George Town Festival 2015 and portrays Malaysian women in their many roles in modern society, forever evolving mindfully and otherwise. Here she tells of, among other things, her chosen tool to express herself artistically and Penang.

How would you describe yourself?
I‘m part of a growing hybrid generation of rootless individuals. As a ‘wandering electron’, I absorb experiences from my travels and provoke questions about the human, social and environmental condition. Through my art, I look to reveal the fundamental elements which drive our inner existence (life, death, fear, hope, love, desire) in a world increasingly dependent on technology and materialism.

Why have you chosen cameras as a tool to express yourself creatively? 

Having never been rooted in one place or country, the camera is the perfect tool for my inner and outer expression, not only to document faithfully my emotional and visual memory but as a door or window into other worlds I come across during my wanderings.

What is your favoured camera type? 

I‘ve used my 8x10 inch view camera for the last 24 years and will continue to do so. The weight, size and technical challenges which come with such a camera oblige me to be grounded and centred in order to conduct photo sessions with perfectly unknown places and people. The view camera is my portable home, my dark private theatre which invites the world out there to come trickling into my camera obscura.

How has today’s technology come into play with your work? 

Technology has not always facilitated my way of working which dates back to when analogue photography was invented. Large format negative films are difficult to find and costly, finding a printer that works with large format films in a darkroom is practically impossible these days. Everything from pre to post production needs to be brought back to my work base in Paris. However, every ‘negative’ side has its opposite and the digital technology has pushed, in a very positive sense, my work to another level, making it a rare, luxury process – an almost handmade product, as my prints are hand-developed and hand-printed in a darkroom by a master printer. My work is the antithesis of the digital image. Being patient and precise, and trusting the latent image without the possibility to guess or delete the work as one would do with a digital camera. My motto for this kind of work is ‘less is more’, time and images are distilled in a few photographs, in contrast with the frenetic production and image sharing of the social media age. The more images are produced out there, the more silent and subtle my photographs become. For those still sensitive enough to perceive this will recognise how important it is to stand still and observe quietly rather than consume and dispose of right after.

Favoured subjects to photograph? 

People. Through them I recognise myself in bits and pieces. My rootless past has provoked a need in me to gather bits and pieces of clues to my ‘whole’ self. In a way, I feel like a mirror splintered into a hundred pieces all over the world and with each voyage, I leave or find a piece of myself there, whether I wish this to happen or not. In order to re-centre myself, I photograph those with whom I can relate with, hence showing a part of me by comparison or by contrast or simple human exchange.

How have you evolved as a photographer in the past decade? 

As I evolve as a human being, my work becomes more present in my life. However, I also take it less seriously, not so much in execution and research but more in a philosophical sense. I tend to trust more my intuition and listen less to my intellect and ego. Intellect is so much about control and I feel freer now, I guess, with lived experiences and maturity to take bigger risks. I am also venturing into other mediums like installation, drawing and painting.

When and how did you forge ties with Penang? 

A few years back by chance during a holiday and realised how much I missed the Malaysia of my childhood and re-discovered it all again in Penang. The smells, the food, the colours, the mosques, Chinese and Hindu temples next to each other, Penang’s population of very integrated Chinese, Malay and Indian communities. Thanks to Joe Sidek (festival director of George Town Festival), I was asked to come back to share my artistic vision with the maternal country I left some 30 years ago.

What is your exhibition in Penang about? 

My exhibition Totem is about exploring Malaysian women’s multiple roots and identities through the bridging of past and present selves, portraying women as modern icons, offering different possibilities of defining women’s roles in modern Malaysian society.
Penang is… 

Still more or less authentic after being labelled a UNESCO world heritage site. I hope Penang will not sell out its soul for more money – it’s the authenticity, the old shops, the old tea houses and old restaurants, night food stalls that attract local and international tourists to this place. Impose rent control in certain areas to protect locals and encourage them to stay and not sell out too quickly.

Penang as a potential creative hub…
High potential, as long as it does not sell out like Malacca has. Malacca has become a bit of a Disneyland, I am very sad to say.

Where do you see Penang’s arts community and standard a decade from now? 

If the Malaysian government keeps its vision of letting Penang preserve its authentic heritage, sustaining and renewing it but not overdoing the process, maintaining intelligent and sustainable growth, there would be more hope for the arts community and its standard to flourish and even evolve to an international level.

What are the best things about Penang for you? 

Multicultural atmosphere, religious and racial tolerance, food, George Town Festival, the arts, Penangites.

What’s next for you? 

Exhibitions in Alliance Française KL and Singapore, workshop in Singapore, art projects in Morocco and Egypt.

Diana’s Totem exhibition is on from 1 – 31 Aug at The Space, 216 Lebuh Pantai in George Town. A space she describes as ‘very raw, its stained white chalk walls and air wells have a Tarkovskian atmosphere. I feel it gives the right contrast to my work’.

On 1 Aug, 4pm to 6pm, she will present her work and there will be a short performance by talented Odissi dancer January Low at 5pm who is one of her photographed subjects of Totem. She’ll be there on 2 and 3 Aug too.

Diana’s masterclass The New Narrative will be held on 10 – 15 Aug. She explains the workshop to be ‘experimental as it will consider using found and original images taken with all technical devices used today in our everyday life and the internet. Photographers attending it must be willing to abandon all previous notions of visual storytelling and explore developing ideas within and outside the sphere of the camera.’
Click here for more info.