As a Sabah-born Malaysian, the region of Sulu – sandwiched between South Philippines and East Malaysia – is Yee I-Lann’s area of darkness. The Philippines claims jurisdiction over the islands but the area is mainly Islamic. In the last 30 years, Sulu has been shut off from the world, as militant groups like Moro National Liberation Front remain active. Different indigenous groups also have legitimate claims over the islands. The arrival of European colonists added to the volatility. However, “colonization” by economics came much earlier when Chinese merchants started trading in the area about 1,000 years ago while their Arabic counterparts “colonized” by religion.
In “Sulu Stories” (2005), Yee tried to enter Sulu through myths and memories. Spending time at the Filipiniana Heritage Library in Manila, Sabah State Museum, and the Sabah State Archives in Kota Kinabalu, Yee learnt about the Tau-tau islands, where locals place effigies of illnesses so that Malaria or fever can be kept away. She read about the Bajau people, who live their lives on the reefs and come onto the islands to die, their graves facing the direction of Mecca. Yee functioned like a researcher. The images were produced on Photoshop as a by-product of a mental editing process of what she saw physically and what she found in the records. The artist was not necessarily interested in depicting the literal reality of Sulu. Instead, she was drawn by the mood and temperament of that reality.
[“The Ch’i-lin of Calauit” / From “Sulu Stories” / Courtesy of Yee I-Lann]