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Diana Lui – Totem

Exhibition from July 4th to September 24, 2016

Totem - a book of nostalgia, a personal anthology of Malaysia 

“A one-year residence last year in Malaysia in collaboration with both George Town Festival and Obscura Photo Festival in Penang as well as the Alliance Française in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore for my project “Totem” gave me a chance to reconcile with my roots. It was an emotional homecoming as well as a challenge to say something about Malaysia that was both very personal yet universal. I made 13 portraits of Malaysian women from different mixed ethnicities highlighting the multiplicity and richness of our culture and history through the traditional costumes worn. The psychological transformations which had taken place since the economic boom in the 80’s, the economic crisis in the 1990’s and the recent economic crash also had a profound effect on our national and personal identity. Each encounter with a woman was like an encounter with my past, present and future, each woman reflected the woman I could have become and may yet to become. Every exchange was intense and unsettling, with a look deep into each other’s eyes and life-story, we remember the Malaysia we once knew and become lucidly aware of our inner and outer transformations as women in this fast-moving world... 

“Totem” an artist book is a labour of love, nostalgia and rebirth. It’s a personal anthology of Malaysia and an act of love and preservation for the multiple identities and arts of Malaysia. Each triptych is dedicated to a portrait of a Malaysian woman, a glimpse of her personal life, an historical description of her costume as well as the origins of her mixed ethnicity all graced by an authentic piece of beautifully hand-woven songket, a Malay brocade textile made of gold, silver and silk threads. The project is entirely handmade by Malaysian and Parisian hands, the two main geo- graphic poles of my existence. Other than the photographs and texts which are printed on Japanese kozo paper using the latest museum qua- lity digital printing available, the photographs are created with an early 20th century 8x10 inch view camera, the textile songket accompanying each portrait is hand-woven by women in Borneo from Sarawak, the cover, type and text design are by a talented Malaysian graphic designer, the book is bounded by a Parisian bookbinder and the gold embossing is made by one of the few existing gold gilders still working in Paris. 

Finally this artist book is about celebrating being small and artisanal, savouring the art of handmade objects and a very limited edition as a response to the billions of images produced and shared on internet everyday around the world. It’s an act of standing still, slowing down, expanding a long moment of silence, observing, feeling, touching and turning in.” Texte Diana Lui. 

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© Diana Lui, Courtesy : Galerie Huit Arles

About the Artist

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Diana Lui is a Franco-Belgian photographer, artist and filmmaker of Chinese origin from Malaysia. Due to political and economic instability, she was sent in the 1980’s at age 14 to further her studies in Los Angeles, California. After 12 years in the United States, Lui immigrated to Europe, first to Belgium and finally to France in 1998. Lui’s transient life between three different continents has developed in her a heightened sense of “rootlessness”. This «loss of self» became later the center from which her art took shape.


Diana Lui trained from early on in diverse art forms ranging from Chinese ink painting to the performance arts. Her fine arts education in UCLA (University California Los Angeles) and the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, California) were influenced by teachers Robert Heinecken and Jan Stüssy, prominent artists of the 1960’s Post-Modernist period. Lui specialized in photogravure and platinum/palladium printing under the guidance of Los Angeles master printmaker Anthony Zepeda, Rauschenberg’s former printer. Based in Paris for 18 years, Lui works between Europe, North Africa and Asia. A master with the 8x10 inch view camera, Diana Lui develops projects over several years. Diana Lui’s large format photographic portraits have been compared to August Sander’s portraits of the German people.

However, Lui takes off from August Sander’s objectivity with a lyricism and sensitivity of her own interpretation. 
Lui has exhibited and is collected by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world – Institut du Monde Arabe, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Guangdong Museum of Art, Shanghai Art Museum, Fototeca de Monterrey in Mexico, Museo de Bellas Artes Caracas in Venezuela and Musée de la Photographie de Charleroi. In recent years, she has expanded into installation art inside museums and on cultural and historical sites. 

Her latest project explores the veil and its universal semantics in North Africa. Her recent exhibitions include a series of striking portraits on women in traditional costume from Tunisia at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, portraits of Moroccan women in traditional veiled costumes at the Obscura Festival of Photography in Penang, Malaysia and portraits on Malaysian women’s contemporary identity at the George Town Festival in Penang. Be- cause of her additional qualities as an excellent mentor, she is the chosen candidate for the first edition of a prestigious artist residence, 1+2 Toulouse, which combines creation and mentorship over a one year period. 

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