From her perception of the world to her unorthodox approach to art, Dhan Illiani Yusof is a creative visionary at only 24 years of age. Whether it's feminism, gender or social commentary, Dhan isn't afraid to speak to the masses through her unique art that seeks to empower those laden by expectations, boundaries and labels. Below, we speak to the artist about her creative philosophies (we get real deep), the function of art and more.
When did your journey as a creative begin (both personally and professionally?
I've always been in love with the idea of exploring possibilities in art, growing up I was that kid that lived in my own world, I had an imaginary world I called ‘Niyaland’ and was too often misunderstood. Overtime, I realized people could come to understand me easier through my art, so my visuals became my main medium of communication and comprehension to my environment and myself.
I began to take commissions through sharing my work online when I was 15, and started exhibiting at the age of 17 right after finishing high school. I have been actively practicing since then, in a way this year is my 7th year practicing art full time.
What is your life ethos and how does it relate to your creative journey?
My family is rather unconventional, we don't do so well with systems or standards in place—we're quite free spirited beings in that sense. So I was taught to sort of make up what I want out of my life, which can be reckless but growing up, I learned to not limit myself, to explore my potential and was given room to make my own decisions while learning their consequences directly by myself too.
I never felt like I needed to figure out things in my future, to follow or conduct myself in a certain way. So while my friends had decided on their ambitions, I changed mine every year which made some of my teachers view me as very indecisive and directionless [laughs] but I learned later on that I actually knew specifically what I wanted for myself and just approached things in a different manner than they understood how.
I remember one time in school, my teacher told me that like a footballer trying to score a goal, I had to have a solid structure and clear plan in life. But instead of what he wanted to hear, I told him it was much more interesting to just kick and see where the ball lands; to be the net and go where the ball takes me. He did not like my answer to say the least. I was too cheeky and stubborn for a quiet person!
With my big thirst to learn a wide range of things, I soon found out in high school that an artist’s scope of work is endless and is a constant form of exploration. Its from there that I realized I can be victor and build my own frankupation.
Can you describe what your artistic and creative direction are? Is it much different now than it was before?
When I was starting out freelancing, it was more on learning how to get the results that fit the visions I had; the way I want things can be very specific in order to portray and embody my art style. So I had to learn how to plan and breathe into life my ideas, that came with a lot of experimentation.
Some projects went right and some were completely different from the original idea I laid out. I think now what's different is how I learned to enjoy the organic process even more as the main aspect of my art form and work, and put less emphasis on the results or end product of my work.
Definitely now, people who work with me more or less understand how I function and work, and know my works are meant to have unexpected results and are very playful without sacrificing the essence of the direction and message. I'm grateful that my project and ventures work on emphasising my best interest as a creative individual and not directed in my skill set alone. I strive to bridge genuine connections with people I work with, as not only a work venture but a collaboration of mind and hearts. I won't say its easy, but its a practice I try to push forward in my art practice.
What are some of the things your art works are constantly seeking to explore?
I try to be as unrestrictive as possible in my art works , so it opens up the possibility of them to take up any shape or form into being, instead of subjecting them to a definition or category.
I think of them having their own personality and growing even past me. I treat all of my works as works in progress, so none of them are ever ‘finished’. I don't mind if they're not long lasting, even the idea of it falling apart seems more organic. I always have to learn to let them go to what they're meant to convey without me.
Fashion is a huge part of your life and your work — how do you personally see fashion and art converge?
Fashion in general is the clothes you wear that mirror your lifestyle and interests, and all clothes tend to be an art form because they are crafted to the ideals of the human form and body. So what makes it converge with art even more is the technical play of silhouettes to the human body, the visual aspect and presentation, the ones that stretches choices past practicality and comfort.
Rightfully fashion and art converges most saturatedly in avant garde or couture pieces.
But with people like us, who cant exactly afford those prices, there are those who can emulate the mix fashion and art just as strongly (appearance-wise, not quality in material or workmanship!) [laughs].
There are people who have a certain style: they know how to pair things, what color goes well, what silhouette, design, aesthetic they're going for; and then there are a very select few who have a personal style that sets them apart, especially one that you can pinpoint is theirs and theirs alone, ones you can't categorise or search on tumblr, or even name because it is uniquely them. These people usually aren't even trendsetters or nor do they care for trends or even fashion in general. These are usually the truly eccentric ones.
We love that you are a multi-hyphenated creative in every sense of the word; you're doing so much and it's honestly hard to believe you're only 24 years old! How can others stay creatively productive and curious like you?
Be genuine and true to your growth and process. Your mental health knows when you're betraying your boundaries. Your creative work shouldn't outdo your personal capacity or overtake your natural rate of growth and development, align them so its nurturing and not harmful.
Your productivity shouldn't be measured by your output but by the value of what it has served for your personal being and creative curiosity, that way it isn't about maintaining constant results but continued findings.
In the career and practice of art, the biggest accomplishment is continuance. Recognition or ‘success’ are fleeting, although it may serve to bump up your pay check if you're lucky.
So find out what genuinely serves your own capacity and potential—there's no race to being you.
What was the most significant/impactful project for you thus far — why?
Arus Binti, which is a continuous series of experimental video art films that I started in 2019. It currently has two installments—the first Arus Binti was screened in Ipoh at Festival Kolektif , the other Arus Binti: Kobis Merah was shown in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, Indonesia at the end of 2019.
Arus Binti focuses on the experience of womanhood and girlhood in the cultural and social aspect of Malaysia. It's my favourite as it documents the inner world of the perception and reality faced by women, and how femininity is infinitely shape shifting in different everyday women, the most fluid being.
I believe, you can't feel empowered if you're unkind to yourself.
What is one thing today's wave of creatives should hear?
We live in a very worrying time, not only in terms of economic decline, the pandemics presence or social issues that require better management, but also the most worrying and urgent, climate change itself. So today's generation generally doesn't have the privilege to sit back, we will need to be more aware of affairs outside of our own awareness, be more pro active and act for change.
We need to understand not only of our individual capacity and potential in navigating and tackling through these issues but also learn to be in arms, supporting and collaborating with others for bigger possibilities and what we can do together in times like these. Art is of course firstly meant to serve you and your development, but at times like this, what else can you do with it?
To quote from one of the most prestigious art collectives, Ruang Rupa, which I had the honor of learning from in my 2 weeks of residency and exhibition at their quarters in Gudskul in Jakarta, Indonesia, “Art and the artist can no longer exist for their own sake, practicing collectively and working collaboratively are methods to take a stand in society, practically and discursively.”
So as a creative today in our current climate, understand your roles in the bigger scheme of things, mainly in functioning in the community and the creative ecosystem itself. So in your practice, always seek to learn if your working ethics are mindful of others in the scene, are you supportive of the growth of other creatives or good initiatives? What values do you stand on? Do you horde resources and knowledge that you've learned or are your nurturing towards their development by sharing?
The human value of art as a practice is saturated once you step out of your head to learn and engage with others. Don't get swept up in the ego of creating. By all means, be individualistic, but always share.
Which comes lastly, always be open to critique and feedback, in fact be hungry for viewpoints, that is the difference between doing art as a hobby for personal expression and as a profession. Art without a viewer is a looped conversation with yourself, most times in order to grow, you need to feel uncomfortable.
What are your top 3 tips you can share to other aspiring artists out there to speak out and not be afraid of their voice?
Speak out with the intention of learning more than solidifying your own beliefs.
Ask a lot of questions, and always listen more than talk.
Be your number 1 fan (the most important!).
Your art is constantly stupefying labels and breaking boundaries. In your opinion, how does one truly express empowerment through art? How did you come to find your voice in art?
I feel most empowered when I do things genuinely for myself, without the intention of it being a form of contempt or dedication to anyone or anything. So I actually strive to be my own source of empowerment first, learning how to take care and treat myself better.
I believe, you can't feel empowered if you're unkind to yourself.
Growing up as a Muslim girl, your being is always viewed and associated with the idea of boundaries, and never really possibilities, and for a time I believed it too, since I've never seen people like me 'making it' but overtime I realized they are boundaries I was pushed to believe and adopt as my own.
So my voice came from personal works in constantly observing, learning and unlearning to understand myself, what I wanted and felt true to me without outside influences or dictations. It was about processing my truth, whether it was degrading or empowering. It's a continuous process to view my weaknesses and vulnerability with more kindness and understanding, possibly even changing to view them as a form of strength in progress.
To me, art is empowering because it is a tool that can be used to amplify what's already present in the artists as well as the viewer's psyche without them knowing that part of them has always existed.
Recognition or ‘success’ are fleeting, although it may serve to bump up your pay check if you're lucky. So find out what genuinely serves your own capacity and potential—there's no race to being you.
How do you see the world?
Most of my views are influenced by my late mother, she’d often tell me things that I wouldn't understand at a young age, but would come to learn through the years.
I learned most from her love for gardening and her habits of rehabilitating animals, she cared for things very well, so I often spent time in the garden with her and I'd pretend I was one of the plants she was caring. Since I was young I unconsciously equated my the concept of my growth the same way her plants grew.
Without me knowing, that shaped how I viewed a lot of things, especially the process of growth being messy, uncomfortable and non-linear, while also teaching me to be attentive to variables and details of those around me.
What type of artist do you wish to be?
A colleague said something that really seeded in me, "jadi manusia dulu, seni datang kemudian" which means ‘be a human being first , the art comes later’. It's from those words that I realized two things: 1) that I just want to learn to be a good human being, and focus on that as part of the navigation in my work, and 2) I want to be the sort of person that shows people the possibility and capabilities in everything, mostly in themselves, and have them believe in their capacity. A lot of people just need someone to believe in them.
I'll put it this way, when I look at stars, I can't help but wonder how it can appear so small from where I am at, but if I take a much closer look at it upfront in space it is so intricate, complex, beautiful and much bigger than I can ever wrap my head around. I could just draw it as one dot if I choose to, but it sacrifices a lot of what it truly is.
I think the same are done with people and the potential—possibility they have.
Lastly, please shoutout 3 of your favourite local creative crushes and their IG handle!