by Laura Fan

“Give the best that you can be in the world as a woman” says Diana Lui to the luminous, tangerine-haired singer in front of us. Focused and possessing a meditative stillness, the photographer and the singer, featured in Totem #07, established a powerful connection during the time required to take the shot. With Lui’s camera, this time is considerable. She doesn’t use a digital camera.  Instead, she relies on a camera obscura housed in a beautiful rosewood casing.  

To take photos, she disappears behind the coffee-table book sized camera and under an enormous black velvet cloth. The camera was made by the Gundlach-Manhattan Optical Company from Rochester, New York in the early 20th century.  Decades ago, when she was in art school, she found it in Southern California, at a Pasadena flea market and it has been her camera of choice ever since. Loading the nearly A-4 sized film takes over an hour and exposing the film to record the images takes minutes, time that can feel like an eternity in our digital age.  

In contrast, minutes earlier, the sea-foam-turquoise sari-clad performer had been snapping away on her gold iPhone for later posting on her Instagram account.  She captured Diana’s image in seconds as the photographer was preparing to photograph her. This juxtaposition of old and new technologies is one of the many dimensions that emerge in Diana’s photo sessions, and they all contribute to the unique density of her portraits.    

At the shoot, the singer’s family members swirl about, engaged in everyday tasks as well as in helping their beloved girl: the shoot took place in the singer’s grandmother’s house. Granny, mother, father, boyfriend and the cat all joined in the action. This setting placed the young lady in a familiar and safe space, wearing festive clothing of her choice. The photographer was here as an invited guest, sharing in the singer’s world.  

Lui’s work processes empower her subjects.  She rejects shooting in the neutral white box that imposes a photographer’s vision on their subjects.  Instead, her subjects are photographed in a place of their choosing, amongst the people they love, surrounded by the objects of their daily lives.  In this way she creates multi-dimensional, rich and subtle portraits. Lui subverts and changes the traditional power dynamic between photographer and subject, making it a collaborative process rather than a controlling one.  Rather than imposing her idea of what her subjects should look like, she seeks to make their unique qualities visible.

Posed in a wedding dress or a ritual costume of their choice, Lui’s subjects adorn themselves in celebratory attire that declare their cultural affiliation. These beautiful and dense images present what appears to be a Chinese woman posed in a perfect classical Indian dance stance, an Orang Asli in a resplendent bark fabric wedding dress, and a Sarawakian woman (who has recently converted to Islam) clad in ancestral Lotud priestess adornment.  These remarkable portraits defy the simplistic racial classifications of Malaysian citizens as Malay, Chinese, Indian or Other. 

The ability to define oneself as a woman remains a challenge in Malaysia today. This year has seen controversy over the wearing of regulation gymnastics leotards by a Muslim champion.  Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, won five medals in gymnastics, including two gold, at the 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games held in Singapore. After complaints were lodged and social media posts proliferated criticising how her leotard revealed the shape of her aurat (genitalia), the Federal MP Jamil Khir Baharom announced he would hold a review of appropriate competition attire. Indeed, the controversy far overwhelmed discussion of her dynamic performances and remarkable achievements. Her talent, hard work and choices were held by some to be less important than her identity as a Muslim Malay woman.  

Hearteningly, her supporters were also vocal, myriad and powerful. They included the Sultan of Selangor Sharafuddin Idris Shah who congratulated her and brushed aside her critics.  In a letter issued from the Palace, he wrote, “Criticising your attire should be the last matter in the minds of those who commented negatively on social media. They should be celebrating your achievements for Malaysia and Selangor."1   Social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir challenged detractors to reflect on their own achievements before finding fault with others.2  Social media, newspaper commentaries and sports officials provided robust support for the gymnast’s accomplishments. The firestorm surrounding Farah Ann’s purple leotard proves that a woman’s control over her body and its presentation remains contested ground.

Diana Lui’s photographs of each subject strike an unusual balance between outward cultural affiliations displayed through their choice of ritual dress and deliberate signs of individuality. Signifiers such as tattoos or ancestral ritual jewellery reveal the elements of choice in the cultural affiliation of each person, and their right to represent themselves as they wish.  

The challenge and necessity of fitting in with a cultural group as well as nurturing one’s inner life were discussed by psychiatrist Carl Jung in his book Two Essays on Analytical Psychology.  He writes about the choices people make to create a persona that is acceptable to one’s society while hiding the “true nature of the individual.”3  Yet, in order to be a healthy and well-adjusted human being, one’s inner life must also be cherished.  Otherwise the individual would suffer from the pressure of constantly living for other people.4

Lui’s photographs bring together the cultural communities her subjects identify with as well as bringing in myriad aspects of the lives they have developed as individuals.  These women and their photographs celebrate their lives and work in all of its complexity.

One of the most striking pair of images can be seen in Totem #08 and Totem #09. An award-winning Odissi classical Indian dancer and modern choreographer, the dancer possesses a breathtaking loveliness that is explosively matched with her remarkable talent in dance. The two portraits are outwardly a study in contrasts but ultimately reveal some of dense complexity of her life.  

Totem #08 presents the dancer in her mother’s traditional Chinese wedding dress, a cheong sam, embroidered with sequined dragons. Posed barefoot in a bamboo grove, with her torso upright and her arm across her waist, holding on to her left arm, from waist up, she evokes a Chinese goddess waiting to address a travelling hero.  

Yet a closer look will reveal that no Chinese goddess would stand in that particular way, unless they had devoted decades to classical Indian dance. Her hip is tilted to the left at an extraordinary angle. Her weight rests entirely on her left leg while the right leg is angled to the left to provide further balance. This challenging pose, honed through thousands of hours in the studio, reflects the classical Odissi three-part break in which the head, torso and hip seem to move independently from each other. The dancer’s clear-sighted expression, the demure pose of her upper body, combined with the emphatic and mobile hip swung out to the left coalesce to create a startling image of modesty and sensuality, controlled passion and physical power.  

Further amplifying her identity as a classical Indian dancer, Totem #09 presents the young lady resplendent in full Odissi costume, perched atop a bare concrete roof, like a mythical being from the empyrean that has just landed on the city. In both portraits, the dancer’s unfurling lotus tattoo on her left upper arm and her chipped dark nail polish remind the viewers that she is her own person and she will do with her body what she wants.

Further remarkable contrasts can be seen in Totem #06. In this portrait, a self-possessed young lady stands dressed in the traditional dress of the Lotud tribe of Sarawak.  Wearing a ceremonial headdress and traditional black two-part outfit with a jacket with beautifully red tinobogi stitch work (a needle-weaving technique of interlaced flannel stitches) on sleeves, collar, around the hips of the sarong, linangkit (tapestry weave using needle and thread) panel detailing along the length of the sarong and curvilinear motif of bamboo shoots on central jacket decoration and its cuffs, she stands perfectly poised in an abandoned building covered in graffiti. Her clothing and ornaments conveys information legible to her tribe and that would enable her to communicate with her ancestors and the unseen world that influences tribal life. Around her neck she wears the cylindrical beaded necklaces marked with silver cones that designate her as the descendent of a high priestess.5 On her left wrist gracefully dangles a jarlet covered with beads used to ritualistically interact with the spirit world.6 Additionally, some of the necklaces have smaller silver cones than traditionally seen and these allude to the subject’s work as a jewellery designer. In subtle touches and more visibly in the setting of urban decay, this portrait indicates that the world that the subject’s ancestors had grown up in has changed irrevocably. Although that identity is clearly of great importance to her, Lui’s captions reveal that the jewellery designer had recently converted to Islam to marry her husband from the Bajau Sama tribe. Asian societies, nature and communities have undergone dramatic and sometimes violent change. Yet this portrait poignantly asserts the enduring importance of history, personal identity and family culture.

The final image to be discussed in this essay is that of the photographer herself. Diana Lui features in Totem #13 set in her studio in Montreuil, in the outskirts of Paris.  Including herself in the exhibition places Lui on somewhat equal footing with her subjects. Rather than reserving the power of being the artist who looks, captures, edits and selects, she turns the camera around and lets us look at her.  

Wearing a black cloth draped around her body, she appears like a goddess from Classical Greece or the oracle in the Western Desert of Egypt.  Yet the setting is resolutely urban. The bare concrete floors and the paintings of mythic archetypes hung without frames behind her all speak of an edgy, examined, creative life.  Behind her hangs a painting of a calligraphic line, evoking the 1960’s performance art Happenings of Fluxus in Los Angeles. At these gatherings, everyone present was asked to make art according to a direction. This particular painting suggests the instruction for participants to “Draw a Line and Follow It”.   

Continuing the line metaphor, flowing downwards in Lui’s right hand is the cord that releases the camera’s shutter. The blurred details of her right hand further indicate her active participation in the creative process. By being part of the art-making process and in coming back to display her work in Malaysia, she connects her past and present, and between our cultural identities and individual choices.

Kuala Lumpur, 2015


1  Rahimy Rahim, “Farah Ann Receives Selangor Sultan’s Backing,” The Star, June 26, 2015,

2 “Farah Ann Wore the Right Attire and Did the Nation Proud,” The Star, June 14, 2015,

3 C.G. Jung, “Anima and Animus,” in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York:  Bollingen Foundation Inc., 1966), 192.

4 Ibid, 193.

5 Patricia Regis, “Jewellery and Ornaments of Sabah and Sarawak,” in The Encyclopedia of Malaysia:  Crafts and the Visual Arts, ed. Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (Singapore:  Archipelago Press/Editions Didier Millet, 2007), 91.

6 Patricia Regis, “Costumes and Ornaments of Sabah,” in The Encyclopedia of Malaysia:  Crafts and the Visual Arts, ed. Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (Singapore:  Archipelago Press/Editions Didier Millet, 2007), 74.