Dhan Illiani Yusof’s ‘NIYAT’ (Intentions) may not be the same as yours

Titled ‘NIYAT’, this installation and art exhibition is Dhan Illiani's first series to be displayed at the National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Negara). BASKL discovers what it means to be playful and hopeful through making one’s art piece in this short interview with the multidisciplinary artist.


Presented as a Hanya Satu (Single) exhibit at the National Art Gallery from December 25, 2023 to February 19, 2024, NIYAT is multidisciplinary artist Dhan Illiani Yusof (27)’s play on a list of things. She, who doubles as an athlete (FYI, Dhan is part of the national women’s ice hockey team) stays true to her experimental and reflective, yet overtly playful and honest nature, choosing to carefully project these qualities in her latest feat.

“This is my first time to fully address the understanding of spatial awareness,” she says in our chat. The manner that Hanya Satu (Single) exhibits are placed periodically, smack at the entrance of the National Art Gallery poses a challenge to artists who are new to the activation space. After being deliberate about this space she has been invited to occupy, Dhan’s introspective persona lingers on the word ‘niat’, or ‘intention’ in Malay, derived from the Arabic word ‘niyyah’.

“Not many people know that my name Dhan is short for Dhaniya. NIYAT is in my name.”

Dhan during her media preview session at the National Art Gallery on January 17, 2024

Reflecting on how the formation of one’s intentions is part and parcel of making art, NIYAT at a glance may seem like an amalgam of three pieces, when in actuality it is a collection of seven elements sewn together and then represented as three main conceptual representations. On one corner with a line of hung head coverings is the Floating Intention (Niyat Ringan); behind it you can see a slab of concrete embodying Weighted Intention (Niyat Berat) and on the far right stands the curated and cemented Intention to Act (Niyat Untuk Bertindak).

“I tend to be very frank about my processes. NIYAT is a start,” she tells. “In general, there are many sides to it. I’m not trying to be restrictive about how it comes out to the audience, rather I’m being open and observing the different narratives and definitions that people have. A ‘niat’ to me is not only a form of intention but also the process of understanding, an act of surrender.”

There is no wrong or right way to interpret this exhibition. Dhan notes, “It is non-definitive and it is really up to the audience to formulate however they want to. NIYAT is sacred, private, concerning one’s inner space. You can have whatever you want to have in your heart, but when you put it out for the world [to see], people will have different understandings, sometimes they will even project them on you.” 

Indirectly through this body of work, she collects her thoughts on implicit intentions (niat tersirat) and expressed intentions (niat tersurat) through the ways she know how. With every art piece she makes in whatever form, she is able to discover, sometimes relearn or unlearn the methods of approaching particular subjects. Even more so if there are restrictions in the way. And mind you, there will always be restrictions: “I had to figure out how to put all these out in less than two months,” she admits. “The benchmark of this work is a sense of sincerity and openness to the process.”

A showcase with elements of leather, concrete and fabric among others, NIYAT takes on Dhan’s quirky, cheeky and experimental approach to sending the message across. “I sourced out the materials here myself and did my dues in tattooing. Tattoos as an art form may be taboo to some, yet sacred to others,” she elaborates. “I pair them with fabric, which I call my second skin.”

Is this an interactive exhibition? To the question she answers, “Yes, I meant for it to be.”

And how does she suggest ways to interact with them? “I won’t suggest,” she says. “I prefer to see what people would [and can] do. I was already aware of the fact that my work will go through a series of changes, maybe some parts will be broken. But I’m interested to see how people do it. Funnily enough, what I thought people would interact with the most are not having such effects, and the components that I thought would be left untouched are being treated otherwise.”

Check the installation out if you have yet to do so. NIYAT by Dhan Illiani Yusof is available at the National Art Gallery until February 19, 2024.

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