#Revisit | Yee I-Lann's notes on The Orang Besar Series

Every week, we’ll be sharing a video, notes, or images from our past exhibitions in a series we’re calling #revisit. This week, we’re reading Yee I-Lann’s notes on The Orang Besar Series (2010). Using traditional art forms, such as batik, and photography, Yee I-Lann’s The Orang Besar Series (2010) is an exploration of the dynamics and complexities of classical power structures. Here, the artist breaks down the many ideas her series touches upon.

Notes on The Orang Besar Series (2010+)
by Yee I-Lann

The Orang Besar Series is set on the seas of the Southeast Asian archipelago. In this geography, dominated by a history of maritime trade, the horizon brought new possibilities and influencing forces that, by its flow of traffic, disallowed an insular bordering. Land mass, as marker of this corridored territory, has been stained and shaped by the traffic that has rubbed its porous edges.

The story takes place in no particular period. Time lattices back and forth with the ebbing of tides and monsoons suturing history and current commentary unhindered by habits of linear reading.

The keepers of the Southeast Asian archipelago have long been the Sultans and their henchmen: the Orang Besar. It was the Orang Besar that described the nature of Southeast Asia’s political and economic structures that had both centrifugal and centripetal mandala-like dynamics including distant trade and migration, shifting centers and peripheries. Real power and influence often lay in far-reaching entrepôts controlled by the Orang Besar.

The temperament of these Orang Besar structures, the body politic, continues to the present despite colonial influence that has been absorbed into classical forms of rule and control. The vertical bondage between persons, notions of obligation and patronage, critical to classical power structures, remains.

“Orang Besar” (lit. “Big Person”) is a common term throughout the Southeast Asian archipelago dating back centuries, denoting a person of elite socio-political-economic standing in a community, a “man of prowess”. The term is interchangeable with “Orang Kaya” (lit. “Rich Person”). The term can also be interchangeable with the title “Dato” or “Datuk” and can also be made in reference to a Sultan.

Traditionally, the wealth and influence of a man was measured not by how much land he owned, or by the quantity of livestock or ships he possessed, but by the number of persons dependent upon him. The control of people and access to labour was considered to be the source of power, thus measure of wealth and influence.

These strongmen asserted their control over their localities with powers to ʻtaxʼ in a monopoly over trade, ʻtollʼ within transportation routes and ʻdividendsʼ collected from revenue generating activities and market centers. Their dependents provided an ability to protect and defend these resources.

The Orang Besar were themselves often under obligation or indebted to a higher power within this structure whom they had to pay tribute to. A regional Sultan would grant favour to them in return for continued patronage, a percentage of the takings and their loyalty.

The poor or the weak found security and opportunity in being bonded to an Orang Besar who could protect them and would in turn be obligated to their needs.

Early Western traders encountered many local pirates throughout the Southeast Asian seas who would often rob the European ships of cargo, murder and cause mayhem. Often these accused local pirates were the Bugis or Orang Laut who were famed and feared as warriors of the Sultanates and Orang Besar. Their traditional trading routes were exactly those that the Western Empires aspired to and eventually dominated, subjugating the local populace to their European systems of governance and trade. I see these acts of local “piracy” as defensive pre-colonial resistance and in Western terminology an act of “privateering” for the local Sultanates and Orang Besar.

The Orang Besar continues to be a major character in Southeast Asia’s political and economic narrative.

On the YB Series

The YB Series, presented with a nod to vanitas still-life traditions, is a somewhat humorous component within The Orang Besar Series. It consists of a gathering of wilting orchid corsages pinned on to the uniforms of officialdom — the safari jacket, the not-so-sharp suit, white-collar and the batik shirt. The YB, or Yang Berhormat (“the Honorable”) are the Orang Besar ('Big People') of modern-day Malaysia — the Ministers, Deputy Ministers, and assorted dignitaries enjoying leverage in its political realm. Here we come face to shirt with the sartorial sensibility of political aspiration, the overweening physical presence of power, however begotten. YB places us at an intimate distance to political personality and warns of the pitfalls of a culture of political deference, as a culture of stagnancy, breeding corruption. It offers us familiar patterns in which we might recognize or negotiate our political landscape.

On Batik

The Orang Besar Series also pays tribute to the textile arts and industries of the region as a shared link between cultures, economies and means of expression. The story of the Orang Besar has very masculine overtures but I hope to temper this by using it as its base batiked cloth, traditionally an object of female commentary.

I have long loved the mark making aesthetic of batik crackle. This technique is created by applying liquid wax to cloth then breaking the hardened wax to expose hairline cracks. These cracks are then stained with dyes leaving a spider- webby effect that bristles with static energy. This technique also epitomizes the concept of dye and resist. Resist: To remain firm against the actions, effects, or force of; withstand. In relation to batik techniques, resist means to withstand the stain of dyes, conceptually and aesthetically, a very powerful and poetic tool

Image: Fluid World (detail), Direct digital mimaki inkjet print with acid dye batik crackle Japanese Ai natural indigo on 100% silk twill, 129.5cm x 284cm