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A Conversation With Dhan Illiani Yusof

Dhan Illiani is a multi-disciplinary contemporary & performance artist, fashion designer, and editor at large for Mulazine.

Introduce yourself!

Arus Binti 2019 (Conceptual Photography)
Arus Binti 2019 (Conceptual Photography)

I’m Dhan Illiani Yusof, a multidisciplinary artist with a fashion design background. I dabble mostly in contemporary, conceptual art, and performance art. My work often dives into female nature and examines the social and cultural, if not religious, context of being a woman in Malaysia. I’m also currently the editor-at-large for a local publication and semi-collective— Mulazine.

First off, how did you get into visual and conceptual art? Who or what were your initial inspirations?

During my teens, I frequently assisted my sister, Haida Yusof, who worked as a stylist. This experience helped me familiarize myself with the process of editorials— my first introduction to photographic visual work. Soon after, I discovered fine art conceptual photography through a photographer and friend whose work I view very highly of, Nadirah Zakariya. From then on, I continuously experimented to combine my various interests and the different approaches, mixing my art and fashion to explore my style and visual approach through creative direction.

 

Your philosophy in art is “experimentally playful,” tell me more about that and why you decided upon this philosophy.

At my core, I’m a very playful and curious person. This stretches into my art practice, in which I try to integrate and explore childlike play and the idea of play in the context of adulthood.

In “playing,” values such as personal development are put first rather than a standard we are expected to adhere to, if not limited to, a certain idea or way. It replaces notions of failure with progress instead. The “playing” emphasizes values such as how the capacity of an individual is not defined by results or what they can provide or do but reminds us of the possibilities in the simple joy and unrestrictive form of playing.

Betina Fight (2019) Fabric Installation part of the series

“My philosophy acts as a reminder to be imaginative and experimentive in how I approach my self-doubt and personal limitations and how to include my inner child in the equation; the playful approach helps me genuinely tap into how my self-esteem can be formed healthily as an adult individual and also acts as a tool for self-reflection.”

 

 

 

“Kobis Merah” (2019) Short Video Art exhibited at Arus Binti Exhibition.

A lot of your work also centers around activism and empowering the self and others through expression, and I especially loved the vulnerability and rawness of your project, “1 Cup Berapa KG?” which touched on rape culture and sexual violence against women that is so prevalent and normalized in conservative society; how do you integrate your experience and personal encounters into your work? And what prompted you to begin this piece?

Dealing with unexpected circumstances growing up taught me to view the bigger picture of how things relate to one another, how they affected me, and sometimes, how the people around me adapted and responded to one another, and how things work in the equation. There’s a general pattern in everything, but it’s hard to pinpoint human emotive details and harder to express and explain those complex emotions which I had at the time into words. So, I relied on my art to express myself and comprehend things better.

I could encompass more clearly when I communicate my thoughts and emotions visually rather than verbally. I am able to conceptually convey, symbolize, and tell stories more effectively through compositions. I find genuine elements or values that closely relate to the subject I wish to come across with, so it conveys a visual presentation with a stronger direct perspective of the issue.

“1 Cup Berapa KG” (2020) Installation & Conceptual Photography

I also really enjoyed your performative work with “Dera Deria” and “Unmute,” where you touched on a lot of taboo and sensitive topics such as mental health and femininity; as someone who grew up in Malaysia, I loved seeing how you brought these topics to the surface, how has culture and identity shaped your work?

Thank you! Some of my work focuses on including practices or approaches of Malay culture, but it does explore the bigger spectrum—the melting point of culture in Malaysia as a whole and of “being Malaysian.” The different races, cultures, and religions all influence one another, and there’s also the context of how culture is practiced traditionally versus the modern approach of it through the younger generation of today.

“It’s hard to fully encompass the experience and identity of being Malaysian since it is so unique, multi-faceted, and intertwined.”

Objectively, I try to capture this essence of the “Malaysiana” identity in my work, focusing on youth culture and the context of it being who we are as a generation today. For now, though, I’m trying to highlight and showcase the experience of being a woman in the socio-political and religious setting of Malaysia more.

Unmute (2019) , Arus Binti Exhibition (Performance) 

What conversations do you wish to start with your projects? How do you want to mobilize people who view, interact, and experience your work?

Similarly, how do you choose and curate your subject matter? What is the process behind your creations?

It gravitates toward what I feel strongly about at the present moment. I often highlight the taboos society has about mental health and the common struggles we face as a result of our current climate, other than personal challenges in being a woman.

The angles and perspectives of them change according to questions I would like to pose to myself. I present and paint the realities of how I feel about certain things unfolding and that these are existing emotions that I aim to validate and acknowledge into existence; it’ll naturally open room for the conversation of its purpose despite how messy the subject or issue in question can be, deescalates the subject from being untouchable and reminds that we are just experiencing something very human.

“The mess has a purpose, and it’s fine to be playful with it.”

Kanvas Ini Luka (2020) On-going project tackling mental health.

I experiment with my work in various different forms and shapes and fields altogether, so I don’t have a particular way I want my viewers to interpret my way, although I try to have an interactive or playful element in them. 

Unmute (2019) Interacting with the audience, Arus Binti Exhibition at Kersan Art Foundation, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

I constantly experiment with how they come across; my work may have a set of variables I wish to emulate, but it’s entirely up to my viewers on how they choose to approach and experience it. A huge part of the process of creating my work is left to my viewers to complete.

It reminds me to pay attention to realities outside of my head, to mold how the narrative of my work can be presented in its fullest experience and capacity without sacrificing my way of comprehension or style.

Define what art is to you in three words.

Life. Possibilities. Connections.

What has been your favourite project so far, and why?

Arus Binti, which is a series of video art and short films on celebrating and observing the fluidity of womanhood. The projects under them require a lot of collective teamwork and effort. The various people I met, learned from, and collaborated with shaped the narrative of the project and workpiece to become much bigger and comprehensive of our characters. The unexpected outcome and experience of it make the projects very valuable and fulfilling.

And lastly, what upcoming projects do you have in store? Anything exciting?

At the moment, nothing is set in stone. With the pandemic, it’s hard to truly confirm and plan anything. I am, however, planning on a solo show, hopefully by next year if the situation with the pandemic improves! 

Favourite Malaysian dish: It’s impossible to pick one!

Song on-repeat as of late: Love Story Wa Totsuzen Ni by TwinKids

Favourite place to visit: Anywhere green

You can find Dhan Illiani on Instagram and at her website.


Dhan Illiani is a multi-disciplinary contemporary & performance artist, fashion designer, and editor at large for Mulazine.

As a multi-hyphenate creative, my work spans across different fields , from fashion design, styling, modeling to fine art painting, illustrations, installations, performance art, into film & video art and creative directing campaigns

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