Totem is a series of black & white and colour portraits captured with an 8x10 inch view camera. It started as an inquiry into the role of tradition in the modern world, by way of traditional costumes worn by Malaysian contemporary women. It became an exploration of Diana’s own ideas of Malaysian-ness.

Her research started in Morocco, culminating in an exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris last year. Inspired by the photography of famous French psychiatrist Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, she documented recurring patterns in Morocco and Tunisia's traditional costumes. As her research deepened, she saw similarities in costumes from Malaysia and decided to explore further the universal semantics of the traditional costume which has been influenced for centuries by civilisations along the Silk Route between China and the Mediterranean Sea.

Lui is Malaysian-Chinese. She grew up in Malaysia and spent three decades in the United States and Europe working and studying. The new direction of her research became an opportunity to reconcile with the country she grew up in, as well as to revisit the role of Malaysian women; to see how it has evolved from what she remembered it to be.

As she started to shoot these portraits, questions emerged: What is the role of these costumes in society? What do they represent? How does a woman today situate herself between her traditional and modern roles? Lui began to relate to the sitter the deeper she got into the project. She assumed the characters of these women. She lived vicariously through them and their stories and she became them and they her.

The traditional costumes became the entry point for that deep and personal connection. And the initial idea of a collective totem as a carved, embellished, symbolic emblem for the identity of a people became personal totems for each of these women.


TOTEM: A Solo Exhibition by Diana Lui runs from

1 - 31 August 2015 at



10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia


VIEWING HOURS: Friday – Sunday / 10 am – 6 pm

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Diana Lui‘s work is inspired by the historical landmark photographs of Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872-1934), the famous French psychiatrist, painter and photographer who was fascinated by veiling and draping folds in clothing, dissimulation of the body within them and the erotic charge they provoked.

Lui, however, approaches the subject from an entirely different angle. Clothing, in Clérambault’s world, is considered a costume in the sense of a disguise, much in the same way as in folk traditions. She transcends that exotic aspect staged by Clérambault. She spins around the codes and archetypes traditionally associated with such clothing by enhancing their symbolic value in a very lucid manner. This time, the photographer’s models, far from being instrumentalised, are given the full liberty to express their own story and their own interpretation of history in evolution through the traditional clothing they choose to wear.

Countries evoked by Lui’s work are obviously not all equal in their treatment of women in history. This project nonetheless aims to point out the possible evolution and potential social transformations taking place for women of different cultures at key moments in history.

Lui is known for her many artistic projects addressing the representation of women in society. Her projects have an acute sensitivity for her subjects, in particular for the image of the female body and her intimate personal identity. She knows how to instill confidence and trust in her subjects, allowing them to express their most intimate feelings and the most subtle and secret of sensations — melancholy, distress, happiness…. Her approach is neither documentary nor mise-en-scène. Her sensibility and research converge at the crossroads of these different fields of photography, and this project allows her to bring to light these different components. 

We are well-acquainted with Diana Lui’s photographic work, the permanent evolution of her research, and we extend our utmost encouragement and unreserved support.


General Curator, Photography Department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris