In this portrait series of Malaysian women in traditional wear, they stand facing the camera squarely, their gazes strong and unwavering.

No surprise then that behind every photograph is a story that runs deep – a search for identity, a snapshot of what makes her who she is today, and a window into the intricate link between subject and photographer.

Totem by Diana Lui is a photography exhibition now showing at The Space @ 216 Beach Street in George Town, Penang. It is part of the George Town Festival and runs till Aug 31. Totem will then tour to Kuala Lumpur (Sept 5-Oct 3) before moving to Singapore (Oct 8-31).

Lui’s artistic work for the past 25 years has focused on questions revolving around identity and origin, topics that have become more fluid than ever in modern times.

A master with the 8x10in view camera, her portrait series kicked off in Morocco six years ago during an artist’s residence, where the veil – everyday wear for some of the women – piqued her curiosity.

“I thought it would be interesting to see if it would be possible for their personality to transcend all those layers,” she says. One feels that she is really talking about more than just layers of clothing. At any rate, the King of Morocco liked her work so much that he bought a few of her prints.

From there, Lui started a series of the same theme in Tunisia, and most recently, in Malaysia.

“By asking women today to wear their traditional wedding or ritual costumes, I am exploring our idea of the contemporary universal citizen. How do we bridge both traditional and modern beliefs, do we have to drop the old for the new, can both co-habit and transform into something hybrid?” she asks.

A Malaysian Odissi dancer of Chinese, Indian and Portuguese origins wearing her mother's wedding dress, a cheongsam.

A Malaysian Odissi dancer of Chinese, Indian and Portuguese heritage wearing her mother’s wedding cheongsam.

Totem 06.100 x 80 cm.Kadazandusun bead jewellery maker from Sabah. In her right hand is a timbok, an instrument used to accompany chanting. In her left hand: a string of beads made from the komburongo plant(Acorus Calamus). These beads act as a medium for high priestesses to link our world to the spirit world.

A Kadazandusun bead jewellery-maker from Sabah. In her right hand is a timbok instrument to accompany chanting, in the other is a string of beads to help connect with the spirit world.

Totem 05.100 x 80 cm.A woman of Mah Meri origin in her wedding attire made of inner bark from a teraptree. Her head dress and accessories are made of nipah palm leaflets.

A woman of Mah Meri origin in her wedding outfit made of the inner bark of the terap tree. Her headdress and accessories are made from nipah palm leaves.

Totem 04.120 x 96 cm.A primary school teacher in Chitty (indian Peranakan) wedding attire, posing in front of Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple (where her marriagetook place) next to a bodhi tree, in Kampung Chitty in Gajah Berang, Malacca.

A primary school teacher in Chitty (Indian Peranakan) wedding attire, posing next to a bodhi tree growing outside a temple in Kampung Chitty in Gajah Berang, Malacca.

Lui’s work has been exhibited and collected by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Guangdong Museum of Art, Shanghai Art Museum and Musee de la Photographie de Charleroi in Belgium.

The Malaysian series, which is her first solo exhibition here, comprises 14 portraits of women in traditional wear, which she spent six months on.

“I had eight months to prepare, six months to shoot. It was a very short time, very condensed,” says Lui, 47, who usually spends years developing a project.

To work on Totem, she came to Malaysia every other month to seek out old contacts and forge new connections.

A few of the models are women she had photographed many years ago, but most are “practically strangers” whom she had “deep intuitive links” with.

“That’s really essential for my work,” she explains.

“Without this link, it will look fake, it will look posed. I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to photograph her if I don’t feel like we share that link”.

Photographer Diana Lui at her studio in Montreuil, France. Photos: Diana Lui

Photographer Diana Lui at her studio in Montreuil, France. Photos: Diana Lui

Lui knows a fair bit about creating links.

Her family moved from Malaysia to California in the United States, when she was 14. She has lived in Belgium, and then, for the last 17 years and counting, France.

During my chat with her, she lapses into dreamy imagery between tales of childhood and her photography. She reflects on how her younger self was kind of overwhelmed by her “hybrid nomadic traveller” life.

“I fell into a depressive existential crisis of sorts,” she says. But that was a long time ago.

Now, Lui embraces it whole-heartedly and reckons she is like a “wandering electron”, moving from one country to the next, forming links with each place and experience, and learning and growing from it.

She plans to add another 20 or 25 more photographs to the Malaysian body of work, and about half that to the Moroccan series.

A songket weaver with Chinese, Malay and Bugia parentage. The songket took her  more than two months to finish.

A master songket weaver of Chinese, Malay and Bugis parentage. She took more than two months to finish the piece she is wearing.

She also expresses that she would like to continue this portrait series in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey.

Finding herself drawn to these places like a moth to a flame, she ponders upon their similarities to Malaysia and how this resonates with her.

“Like Malaysia, these countries have had many cultures imposed upon them. There is a certain openness in the way the people there live. They carry these experiences with them and they absorb it. In a way, it represents who I am and how I function in the world now,” she says.

Having spent most of her life abroad, Lui sees this reconciliation with her native country as a personal one.

Totem revisits the traditional costumes from Malaysia, but beyond the aesthetic and symbolic representation of these costumes, this artistic exploration has become more of an investigation into Lui’s own identity as well as that of other women in Malaysia.

When asked about the meaning behind the exhibition name, she says, “totem” is the crystallisation of what symbolises people and their beliefs.

“For me, it was important to create new totems, or at least to restate it in contemporary terms, through these women,” she explains.

It is obvious from our conversation that Totem celebrates the diversity of our world through these women, but perhaps more importantly, it embraces that we are all intrinsically linked to one another and the world around us.

Catch Totem at The Space @ 216 Beach Street, George Town, Penang. The exhibition ends Aug 31. Opening hours: 10am-6pm (Friday-Sunday). Call 016-660 2585 or visit for more information.