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Meet Yante Ismail, a Malaysian humanitarian, artist and feminist

SHE is a humanitarian worker by day and an artist by night. And both vocations come together beautifully, like a woven tapestry.

Yante Ismail has been involved in non-profit and humanitarian work for 20 years. For the past decade, she has also been a professional artist. Her artwork brings attention to human rights issues, particularly women’s rights and empowerment.

Yante grew up mostly in Australia, where she witnessed a period of xenophobia brought on by the Indochinese refugee crisis.

“I experienced the pain and humiliation of being at the receiving end of a racist and bigoted local community,” Yante told DW.

She returned to Malaysia years later but the memory of what had happened stuck with her and shaped her worldview and sensitivity towards humanitarian issues.

“I was also lucky to have a mother who was an amazing role model who encouraged me to think. And most critically, she provided me access and opportunities to explore the world and to learn.”

After graduating from university, Yante worked with the Malaysian AIDS Council for a short while before embarking on a career with an international humanitarian organization.

“I began working in refugee protection partly because I saw it as one of the most pressing issues of our time, and at a professional level, I was intrigued by the challenge of advocating for the rights of refugees in the context of a country where there are no laws that govern the way refugees are protected,” she explains.

Last year, she spent nearly two months working in the camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where she met refugee women who had been repeatedly raped and/or had been forced to watch as their entire family was slaughtered before their eyes.

“Each night, while I thanked God for the life I was given, I also wondered, why was I given this life, and not these women? How could I have been so privileged? If there was a question put to me about why I do the work I do, that there is the answer.”

Challenging the norms

As a self-taught, figurative artist, Yante strives to change the way women are pressured to live in society.

“My art challenges the institutional and societal obsession with controlling women’s bodies. It is one of the reasons why I paint nude women. I want women to ‘own’ their bodies again, and define it the way they see it, and not as defined by patriarchy or culture or religion.”

For example, she sometimes paints women who are not thin to encourage women of all shapes to love and be comfortable with their bodies and not be ashamed of their sexuality, or lack of.

Yante is certain that movements such as #MeToo play a key role in highlighting issues that women have put up with for decades, empowering them to demand change and justice.

“And that is what I am most concerned about for Malaysia. Women’s rights – including when it relates to sexual and gender-based violence – is never seen as being sufficiently important to be taken seriously, and to warrant societal and policy change.”

The artist also strongly believes that art should be accessible and affordable, especially for young women and girls. She makes reprints and smaller sized versions of her artwork for this reason.

“What is more important to me is that if a young girl feels good about herself, feels stronger or more empowered when looking at my art, then I want her to be able to afford to take that art home.

“The end goal to me is to generate discourse, to raise issues on feminism and on women’s rights in a manner that is accessible to many people, to challenge the way this patriarchal society has defined women by presenting an alternative reality.”

“One could say that my commitment for, and involvement in, human rights fuels my artistic inspiration. But equally, my artistic pursuits give my spirit the passion and nourishment it needs to be a better humanitarian.”

Author: Elle Wong (act)


04.09.2018 | 13:27