“Borneo Heart” marks Yee I-Lann’s first solo exhibition in her hometown of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah. The artist’s practice is structured and sustained by acts of communality, as is reflected by her chosen medium: the tikar, or woven mat. Yee sees weaving as a shared cultural tradition linking the island dwellers of Sabah, many of whom are undocumented migrants or stateless people indigenous to Borneo. This conceit is made literal in Tikar Reben (video), 2020, which shows the artist’s many collaborators unfurling the eponymous ribbon, made from vibrantly colored dried pandan leaves. Together, they string the two-hundred-foot-long textile out over the waters off Omadal Island to a cluster of stilt houses inhabited by the seaborne Sama Dilaut community.
In “Borneo Heart,” Yee pairs a selection of her prints with tikars that have been made in collaboration with women weavers of Bajau and Sama Dilaut descent, as well as those from the inland Dusun population. Dusun Karaoke Mat: Ahaid zou noh doiti (I’ve been here a long time), 2020, reproduces lyrics from popular songs in both the Sabah and the Dusun language. These karaoke songs have found their way into the life of the younger generations of Sabahan people, becoming iconic anthems of resistance against the continuing climate of cultural homogenization in Malaysia. The mat in Tikar/Meja, 2020, renders a typology of tables in vibrant hues. While the artist associates this iconography with the administrative and patriarchal power wielded by colonizers, translating the tables into tikar motifs imbues them with the mat’s “intrinsically feminist power,” which is communal and egalitarian. Like its titular work, Borneo Heart, 2019, an offset print that depicts the island at the center of the world map, the exhibition emanates from the life, history, and traditions of its surroundings.