Of social activism, intersectional narratives, and reclaiming the female form, Yante Ismail shares her convictions with Priscilla Emmanuel.
I was walking into Bangsar’s Telawi street colony on a March day in 2019 when I was halted in my tracks by something I’ve not yet come across in the city: a painting of a full-figured woman with flaming red hair streaming behind her, looking back defiantly at me, with one arm thrown back as if she was tossing away something she no longer needed in her life. Right next to her was a big and bold text that read ‘Keep Your Laws Off My Body’.
I was transfixed for a moment, and completely enraptured as a smile spread across my face. I took my phone out to capture the statement and painted figure in all her glory. I remember thinking to myself that it’s about time we had proper feminist art in public spaces. I looked up the artist whose name, biodata, and message was on the mural, and that was when I was first introduced to Yante Ismail.
It comes at no better time than the celebrated month surrounding International Women’s Day that I now get to present Yante’s work to a whole new audience of art lovers and collectors. A self-taught artist who has been painting professionally for over a decade now, Yante’s contribution to the gender equality movement in Malaysia as an artist is exactly what’s needed to shake up the patriarchy that has molded and conditioned our cultural practices and belief systems.
When asked about her creative processes, Yante replied at length:
“I have been a feminist all my life, and for as long as I can remember, I have recognized the misogyny that surrounds our patriarchal existence, and I have challenged it – whether consciously or not. I was a feminist before I called myself an artist, and it is this firm understanding of women’s rights that has informed my art and my creative process. I am also a writer, and my art is often accompanied by prose and narrative.
“My work challenges patriarchy, and the damaging social, religious, and cultural norms that dictate how women should exist in society. My art challenges the institutional misogyny and societal obsession with controlling women’s bodies.”
“It is one of the reasons why I paint nude women. Actually, I almost exclusively paint the female body in the nude to provide an alternative feminist narrative and frame of reference on the subject, reclaiming it from the ‘male gaze’ that defines the female body only as sexual or lewd, and shameful or virginal. I want women to ‘own’ their bodies again and define it the way they see it, not by patriarchy, culture, or religion.”
“It is one of the reasons why I paint nude women. Actually, I almost exclusively paint the female body in the nude to provide an alternative feminist narrative and frame of reference on the subject, reclaiming it from the ‘male gaze’ that defines the female body only as sexual or lewd, and shameful or virginal. I want women to ‘own’ their bodies again and define it the way they see it, not by patriarchy, culture, or religion.
“Similarly, I paint women who are not thin. I have often been misunderstood as being a proponent of ‘fat’ over ‘thin’ and to clarify, what I promote is for women to own their bodies, but also to be seen as more than their bodies.
“However, in a society that is obsessed with thin, white, and able bodies, I choose to provide an alternative image of a woman who is different to that. If media normalized the idea of the ideal body type as being thin, then we should be able to challenge that with a more inclusive idea of other kinds of bodies as being normal, healthy, and ideal.
“I think what is important is that women should know that they can choose how they feel about their own bodies, and to not be ashamed of their sexuality – or lack of. They get to choose how they use their bodies, what to wear, or how much they’d like to cover. I feel that even these very personal decisions are dictated by the norms of culture and religion which are rarely imposed on men.”
I prompted Yasmin over any exhibitions or projects she was particularly proud of. Her response:
“One of the most important art shows I was a part of was a feminist show in Kuala Lumpur called ‘The Good Malaysian Woman’ by Interpr8 Gallery and feminist NGO–AWAM–in 2014. It is unusual to find a truly, genuine feminist show in Malaysia although there are plenty of all-women art shows.
“I exhibited with some prominent and strong women artists like Bibi Chew, Yee I-Lann, and Jasmine Kok. The artwork I produced for the show, entitled ‘Keep Your Laws Off My Body’ became my ‘flagship’ artwork. I kept going back to that image and the slogan over and over again. Last year, I got to paint the very same image as a mural on a wall in Bangsar.”
“On a personal level, that show in 2014 emboldened me as a feminist artist, and propelled my art trajectory into a solid direction afterwards.”
Yante also feels strongly about how art should be accessible to everyone. She believes that while there is a place and time for galleries, art should not need to only be presented in them, or collected by people with privilege in order to be seen as valuable. She shares with me her conviction on how the age of social media plays a pivotal role in ensuring that people from every corner of the globe now have access to viewing, learning, and appreciating various art forms.
“We are lucky to exist in a time of ridiculously high Internet penetration and to have online platforms which potentially connect you to thousands, if not millions of individuals, with a single click. This is the kind of reach that a gallery could never have. And this creates the kind of potential for social change that a formal gallery setting could never achieve.”Yante Ismail
*This article was first published in The Expat magazine March 2020. To subscribe for more content like this, click here.
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