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



Diana Lui (b. 1968, Malaysia) graduated with a BA in Photography and Fine Art from the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California. Her works are widely recognised by many established art and photography institutions in Asia and Europe. Diana’s photographs can be seen in numerous permanent collections such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Guangdong Museum of Art and Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi. In 2008, the Shanghai Museum awarded her the residency and scholarship of Concours du Consulat de France. She currently lives and works in France.

Lui’s ongoing project is to document what she calls "intimate/psychological/anthropological" portraits. This project has won France’s 20th Bourse du Talent, Kodak Critics’ Award, Belgium’s Prix National de la Photographie Ouverte du Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi, and it was a finalist for the 2008 Prix de la Fondation HSBC pour la Photographie.

In recent years, she has expanded into installation art. Her latest project explores the veil and its universal semantics in Europe and Northern Africa. She recently presented a series of striking portraits of women in traditional costumes from Tunisia at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris.