2019 #25

We've Got the Sun Under Our Skin

by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

Selected by
A.I.,
London, UK

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Selected by A.I.,
London, UK

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

Read more (2 min read)

At its cleft heart

At its cleft heart

"Something about its green stained yellow rind, and in particular the great spawn of gluey, greybrown, caviare-like seeds, and the pale, stringy fibres at its cleft heart made me want to throw up." – Tropic Temper, James Kirkup, 1965

Inconspicuous Spray of Blossoms

Inconspicuous Spray of Blossoms

"High in a tree and almost out of sight, you may see an occasional flower, and lower down perhaps your eye may light upon an inconspicuous spray of blossoms that a careful scrutiny shows to be a miniature orchid." – In Malay Forests, George Maxwell, 1907

Green and Clear and Swirling

Three Gold or Jewelled Brooches

"But the water is always green, and clear, and swirling; it looks and is very deep, and the foliage of the islands is repeated on its surface, in dark green reflections." – British Malaya, Frank Swettenham, 1906

Palpable and Enslaving

Palpable and Enslaving

"A puff faint and tepid laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night - the first sigh of the East on my face. That I can never forget. It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight." – Youth, Joseph Conrad, 1898

Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

London, GB

Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee profile picture

Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

London, GB

Based between London and Singapore, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee’s (b.1994, Singapore) work engages with themes of identity, memory and nostalgia. She frequently draws from postcolonial theory and archival material in order to reframe hegemonic narratives that surround the East. Her latest series, We’ve got the sun under our skin, subverts the orientalist gaze by reconstructing scenes found in colonial literature.
Lee is the founder of XING, a platform for artists to challenge stereotypes around East and Southeast Asian women; XING’s first photobook was published in 2017.

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