Diana Lui is a contemporary artist and photographer, known for her large-format portraits of women as she explores ideas of home and identity. Born in Malaysia, she went to the United States for her studies before settling in Belgium and Paris. This itinerant lifestyle would have a mark on her work. Her early portraits are of people she met on her travels; travellers with a nomadic background similar to hers. Later, in the series The Essential Veil, she photographed women in Morocco and Tunisia wearing veils as she examined its symbolism across cultures. A highly sought after educator, Diana is based in Paris, France.
Born in Malaysia and schooled in the United States, you then moved to Europe where you now have your home base. What impact has this itinerant life had on you?
I’m homeless, in a sense, but I don’t necessarily feel like I have to belong to a home, not anymore. I do have moments of feeling blue, where I ask myself, where do I belong? But I try not to dwell too much on that because I think we can get quite melodramatic and carried away by our emotions. I’m not so interested anymore in emotions. I’m more interested in being present. If we hang on to something, it’s impossible, it’s over. It is creating permanent suffering.
You studied fine art in school but ended up in photography. How did you get into photography?
My mum asked how was I going to make a living doing fine arts so I tried to find a compromise. I started off by doing press and commercial photography but after awhile, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to practice art, 100%. I didn’t want to compromise.
You are well-known for your portraits of women. For your projects, do you leave things to chance? How do you meet the women that you want to photograph?
Yes. I really try not to have a set idea before I start and have been working instinctively for the last 25 years. I travel around with an 8×10 view camera, so that takes some kind of organisation, but in the last 10 years, I’ve become more intuitive, more fluid. I’ve gotten more into chance encounters and I’d say, that would be one of the joys of experience.
You’ve said before that you must have a connection with the women you photograph. Can you say what this connection is?
Before I started working with the women in Tunisia and Morocco, I was like a free electron. I would be going from one country to another without a sense of purpose except meeting people who had similar backgrounds or experiences like me. Before 2009, all my work was based on how I connected with other nomads. There’s a lot of non-verbal aspect to it. It’s more the feeling or chemistry.
I consider myself sort of like a hybrid generation where we don’t only have one place that we call home. We have many homes. And the sense of a hometown that we can return to, I don’t have that. For me, nostalgia is less about the place than the people I’m connected to. It’s related to the heart, whether they are family, friends or men I’ve loved. Like now, I miss Paris because I miss my children who are based there.
Do you still consider yourself a nomad?
Yeah, yeah. These days, I think what I do is not so exceptional anymore because there are so many people who move all the time. They don’t have a home but go where their next job takes them. What’s interesting to address is the idea of identity. For people like me and others, how do we situate ourselves and identify ourselves? I see myself as a floating tree. I refer to a tree because you always have to be centred, at least in my case. When I’m not centred, if I don’t know who I am, I’m really lost. That was the case when I was in my 20s up to my early 30s, a sense of not knowing where I belonged but really needing to know where I did. After a while, I realised that it wasn’t about a geographical belonging but more about feeling that you belong somewhere in terms of your soul and spirit.
It’s the feeling of belonging to yourself.
Yes, exactly. In a way, you don’t have a choice. You can keep floating around without a real sense of self, which if you feel good about it, is great, but if you don’t feel good about it, isn’t great. I’m too much of a Taurus, I need to be grounded but not geographically. It was in my 30s that I realised that what causes this sense of suffering is the fact that I have such classic ideas of home and I just had to stop that. To be home, you need to be well with yourself.
And how do you channel these feelings into your work?
Since 2009, all my portraits have been frontal. If you look at my Moroccan portraits, they are extremely structured, iconic and archetypal. In a way, that’s how it translated itself, into something monumental. OK, I’m centred here and it’s the world that’s revolving around me. But it doesn’t mean that I’m stiff, there’s a constant mutation that takes place in all the portraits that I’ve taken. I like to think that each portrait of each woman is a mini representation of the person, of the female divine. Of the Mother but multiplied a million times.
Since a few years ago, I’ve adhered to the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm, an interesting gnostic idea where we are the perfect copy of the universe. I’ve become a lot more spiritual without being tied to any one school. I believe that there is something much larger, a much bigger picture out there. We must be part of a huge entity that we can never know about but that’s what so fantastic. Hopefully, it’ll open up our hearts and our minds to other possibilities.
Let’s go back to your early work when you used to work with naked portraits of women. Can you talk to us about that?
The whole idea was the idea of being naked – not nude because, in a way, we are dressed. When we’re nude, we’re representing our bodies the way society wants to see it, as something presentable, whereas a naked portrait is about being stark naked. You are not carrying the representation of something – it is not pretty or beautiful or presentable. You are just you. For my portraits, the women are just kind of standing or sitting there, not posing. If there is something melancholic about them, I try to capture that. It’s according to each character. The whole idea is to take away all the layers and get down to the very core of who they are, the essential self.
With the Morocco series, you went completely the other way, photographing women in veils.
When I got this residency in Morocco, I didn’t want to work on naked women there because that was, for me, a way of being provocative. For me, it’s more about what makes sense, what I’m interested in. And I’m interested in the essentialness of who we are. When I photograph women naked, myself included quite a lot of times, it was a personal quest. I subjected myself to the same treatment as I ask of my other subjects.
In Morocco, it didn’t seem natural to do this. So I thought, why not go completely the other way? And I wanted to do weddings, which are a big deal in Morocco. There are seven days of feasting, seven different costumes, each representing a different thing. It was a challenge for me because when a woman is veiled or if she is carrying such a weight – these costumes are very decorative and heavy, combined with family heirlooms – my question is: is there that person left in there somewhere? Is that person’s individuality there still?
With the veil or if someone is so heavily covered, how do you portray personal identity?
It is very difficult. The only way is through their eyes. There are three photographs where you cannot see the women’s eyes. But you can also tell the personality of the person through gestures or the attitude of the body. I also give elaborate captions to the photographs.
Berger wrote that women continually watch or survey themselves, thereby turning themselves into objects. Do you find that with the women that you photograph?
Yes, sure. That’s why I refuse for women to pose. That’s why they are mostly standing in the middle, straight and looking at the camera. Some of my students learning portraiture ask, why are my portraits always frontal and central? I say it’s because I don’t want them to try to be anything. I want them to just be. They have to distil everything into the way they stand and the way they communicate with their eyes, and maybe a little with their hands and the way they place their feet. But no leaning, no trying to be cool, no attitude, no stylisation of their body. Any kind of stylisation and it becomes something else.
Would you say that you were more romantic in your earlier work?
Yes, the early work was more romantic and dealt with a kind of yearning as coming from a younger person. Now, I don’t know if it’s become more intellectual. I wouldn’t like to think that. I would prefer to think that it’s become more internal, more interior. I’m trying to create my own portrait language. I hope with time that the portraits grow on you and that they start to make sense. But you need time for that.
Have you heard of #GirlGaze?
No. What is that?
It’s a project promoting female artists and photographers and taking back the female gaze. In your opinion, do we need more female photographers photographing women?
It’s funny because these days, everyone is a photographer. We really live in a world of images now. I’m not sure we need more photographers to talk about women or women’s identity. I think we have a lot already. It’s more about approaching the subject of women in a more original manner. One must be more demanding in terms of addressing this whole idea of being a woman – what does it mean to be a woman today, how are we being represented and how do we see ourselves? We need to fine-tune and dig deeper and be more demanding in terms of that kind of research before producing or creating an image. For anything now, really. There’s a lot of everything out there now but I feel, most of the time, it’s just on the surface. I feel a bit frustrated. I feel there’s a lot of posturing but not enough deep, personal work. Like how does the artist feel and how responsible is the artist about the subject being treated? How much research and deliberation is there before putting the work out there?
At the KL Biennale late last year, you presented Totem, your portraits of Malaysian women, as an art book. How different is it to view your work in book form as opposed to large scale format?
I always like to challenge myself. I’ve been consistently working with the same camera, working with women and identities since 2009, and my approach to portraiture has been pretty much been the same. But I suddenly had the need to challenge myself to do something small and intimate in contrast to my large-scale photography work. I’ve been wanting to do something handmade, an artist book. It was a need to go back to something handmade, tactile objects. I had this idea of doing an artist book and also collaborating with other people to make this book.
Is this your first artist book?
Yes. I have personal artist books, which are my journals or diaries that I’ve not shown yet. They have several functions, one for love, one for my private life, one for my artwork and one for my travels. Those I’ve always had. I draw and paste in them. But this book is more of an official one. Photography has a function but it’s not the main function. Words mean a lot to me as well, so I wrote for the piece and integrated the text from what was used two years ago.
What was the last work or exhibition that made an impact on you?
I love Marina Abramovich and everything that she has done. But the work that I found most minimalist and the most powerful was the New York show, where she sat staring at the other person. It is the most powerful and yet, the most subtle. And that is what my portraits are about. It’s about being still. Can you be still?
Your run workshops and masterclasses. What lessons are you trying to impart to your students?
To give people the confidence to be who they are. It’s so simple but so difficult to do that. It’s a kind of therapy but I’m not a therapist. I only know how to transmit to people based on my own experiences. For me, art is extremely therapeutic because in creating, I feel like I do exist. It’s true that anchoring myself is through other people but creating anchors me as well. It’s about believing or trusting in who you are.
But how do you know who you are? You can start by un-conditioning yourself. I try to do that in an artificial manner, through my workshops, which can be short and intense. During this time, I try to destabilise the person, not in a violent way but through certain exercises that force the person to turn in and be present. One of the exercises is just to stare at another person in the eyes for a long time without moving. The exercises are to try to get them back in touch with themselves. And then they can go out and do work. Take pictures as they come. By the end of the workshop, hopefully, they would have gone out of their comfort zone and done something that they have never done before.
My masterclasses are much longer, for six months. I follow up with my students once a month. We see each other as a group three out of six times. It’s a personalised mentorship, and I follow each person’s progress until their project comes into fruition as a book, an exhibition or a series of work that can later be sent for competitions or shown to galleries.
So for you, the most powerful works are personal?
The most powerful work is personal but not just in a selfish, individualistic or egotistical way. It’s personal and universal at the same time. It’s where you have two poles in one. It’s very difficult to do. Your work has to seem simple and easy to understand but at the same time, it has to have very deep content and resonate with many people.
Published in July 2018
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.