Combining archival material with photography, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee turns her camera on Britain to demystify nostalgic visions of colonial Malaya.
Unseen Platform: Can you introduce We’ve got the sun under our skin?
Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee: Combining photographs and texts, the series explores how colonial literature constructs perceptions of time and place. Passages from 19th–21st century British travelogues, ethnographic accounts and novels written on Malaya are used as visual cues which dictate the creation of the images. The reconstructed scenes mimic and attempt to subvert the orientalist gaze echoed throughout that genre of colonial literature.
What was your experience of working with colonial literature?
Engaging with “hard” historical sources such as official texts and images, as opposed to “softer” sources such as oral history changes your perception. In this case, the various texts drew a nearly homogenous image of colonial Malaya. Although published, institutional texts are generally viewed as essential truth, I would argue that they are laden with subjectivities. Working with old texts from a present-day perspective made the romanticised gaze really stand out. Producing the images was a way for me to reframe dominant narratives of Malaya and show that there are multiple histories, not just a singular narrative.
How do the themes of displacement, memory and history shape your visual language?
Growing up in Singapore, a country with a predominantly Westernised culture embedded in a predominantly ethnically Asian society, it was instinctual for my generation to reject practices rooted in our heritage and look Westwards. Although it wasn’t destruction per se, it was still neglect. The visual cues I tend to use reflect a mourning for something inexplicable. Working with central human themes such as belonging and loss, allows me to situate the work in a position where it can communicate across cultures and borders.
This project, about the Straits Settlements in South East Asia (British Malaya or colonial Malaya), was shot entirely in Britain. What was the reasoning behind this decision?
Colonised lands, along with their people were (and often still are) viewed through rose-tinted glasses. The vocabulary describing the scenarios in Malaya was almost fetishistic, as if visual pleasure can be derived from conquest. Critical theorist Homi Bhabha speaks of mimicry as an ambivalence, an indeterminacy. In a similar vein, shooting in Britain put me in an undefined, placeless headspace. I am interested in how mimicry can be used to demystify romanticised visions of the tropics projected onto the land. Landscapes of colonised lands, many of which exist in hot climates, are often feminised and eroticised. I wanted to displace the notion that those scenarios could only be found there, and that was when I turned to finding locations in Britain which evoked a similar sense of place and time. Coming full circle, it was me as an Other seeking to return the gaze on British soil.
We’ve got the sun under our skin is an ongoing project. What’s next?
I am continuing to expand the series with the hopes of putting together my first photo book in the very near future.
Text by Jenny Willcock, Unseen Platform