Jesse Joy: the Sabahan artist who articulates politics and activism through his embroideries

Intricate and beautiful, Jesse’s works is a love letter to Sabah.

Jesse Joy is an artist, from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, who uses embroidery as a platform for personal and political expressions.  His pieces are intricate and colourful, featuring details that reflect his East Malaysian background – its breathtaking nature and culture, and the politics that threaten to destroy them. 

The Culture Review Mag: You’re originally from Kota Kinabalu. Why did you move to Kuala Lumpur?

Jesse Joy: I moved to Kuala Lumpur from Kota Kinabalu in 2016 to pursue curating. In KK, I was involved in running an arts collective, I helped manage creative spaces, and I worked in a gallery. Back then I felt that I could do more for my friends in KK. In order to do that, I wanted to learn more. I thought curating would be something great to learn and, because there are not many curators in KK, I got a job in KL, moved there and looked for opportunities to learn. A lot of things happened, things didn’t work out and I was also dealing with my own personal problems. I decided to just do something for myself, and I decided to shift my focus to embroidery.

TCRM: You’ve dabbled in all these different artistic pursuits. Why did you choose embroidery?

JJ: It was a pretty [easy] transition for me, as I was ready to sew anything. I also had all these little trinkets that I just sewed onto fabric. But I guess looking back, what really got me into embroidery was the therapeutic aspects of it, because 2017 was a really shit year for me.

TCRM: Can you explain how embroidery is therapeutic?

JJ: It can be a tedious and frustrating process. It’s such a very slow medium and can affect your health. For example, I stopped stitching for some time cause my hand hurt. I guess it starts to be therapeutic  when you start to trust your process. Anything can happen or change during the course of working on a piece of embroidery. The key is patience. Picture how the end result will look like but be open to any possibilities and let the work unfold stitch by stitch no matter how long it takes.

TCRM: You have quite a diverse portfolio of embroidered work. Your subjects include the fantastic to the more commonplace, but your embroidery also caught attention and created conversations for its blunt political messaging. Can you tell me how your activism started?

JJ: My activism started when I was still in Kota Kinabalu. I’d met Eleanor Goroh, who’s also an activist, so a lot of my knowledge comes from her. But, when it comes to my embroidery and art, of course I do the more typical flowery art, but I also want to do things that people don’t necessarily like. A lot of the politically inspired work that I do, they’re actually immediate responses to what I see happening around me. It’s prompt, it’s fast, and here’s this issue and you want to talk about it. But there’s also a filter to what I want to say. Am I adding to the conversation, or am I merely amplifying?

TCRM: One of your most striking pieces is the Sabah deforestation maps, which is a series of embroidered maps that depict the gradual loss of Sabah’s vast greenery in the last sixty decades. What kinds of conversation were you having when you made that piece, and what sorts of conversation are you hoping for people to have when they see it?

JJ: I wouldn’t say ‘hope’, because I actually saw how people reacted to that piece. The first time I ever showed it was at Rantai Art Festival back in 2019. I was just standing in a corner, watching people come up to view the pieces, just listening to their comments like, ‘Oh! This is depicting the deforestation. Look, the forests used to be full, and now they’re slowly being cleared.’ I’m glad that people are realising this, you know, even KL people! I wanted to make the maps beautiful, but also somber. 

Jesse is outspoken about the deforestation happening in Sabah.

TCRM: Did you have a source for the maps? 

JJ: Yes. They were taken from maps published on Grid-Arendal, which is an environmental non-profit. They’re part of a project called the ‘Last Stand of the Orangutan, Rapid Response Assessment’. 

TCRM: You also have the RM10,000 face mask embroidery. That piece certainly spoke to a wider crowd in the beginning when the government enforced restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the inspiration behind that?

JJ: That piece was actually in response to that student who got fined RM1,000 for merely having his mask off of his face for a second to get some air. I think [reports of] what the authorities did was exaggerated, and their actions showed no empathy. That’s why I made the piece say RM10,000 instead of the actual RM1,000 fine. I guess it also resonates because there were other people who were fined RM10,000 too (for committing other COVID-19 related offenses).

TCRM: What do you think would happen if you were to wear that mask and walk around in public?

JJ: I did actually wear a face mask I embroidered to the 2019 Sabah State elections. But I wore the one that says ‘Undio Noh’ (‘vote’ in the Kadazan Dusun language).

Father and son bonding.

TCRM: How about your other embroidery work? How do you find ideas for them?

JJ: There’s a lot of contemplation involved in each of my pieces. You see some artists uploading two to three works every week on social media, but I simply can’t do that. Not only because I have a job that prevents me from spending much time on embroidery, but also because I often ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Is it because I want social media attention? Or do I sincerely want to say this?

TCRM: Besides your political pieces, your page features some stunning commissioned work. Can you tell us more about them?

JJ: Sheena Liam commissioned me to do the Mulan embroidery [for the film premiere]. She needed someone who can achieve, I guess I could say an almost similar look as the actual logo. I was grateful that she trusted my work and my skills. As for the book covers, it was a dream project came true. My first one was actually for an ebook called Kisah Orang Kita. My boss asked me to do a simple cover for the ebook but I asked him if I could stitch it instead. He gave me that creative freedom. The embroidered cover was auctioned at a bar in Penang. It was a fun night. Then I received more book cover commissions. The processes were really exciting cause every time it’s something new to try.

This piece is in protest against the unfair RM1000 fine imposed on a student who had taken off his mask briefly.

TCRM: Besides the political messages embedded in your embroidery, I also see that you advocate for independent embroidery artists to advocate for themselves and to not cower when it comes to dealing with clients and commissioned work. 

JJ: Personally, I don’t do a lot of commissioned work, but I believe it helps to talk about it. In the beginning, especially when you’re new in your craft, it’s common to have insecurities. I still have them to this day. Embroidery is such a lengthy process, so you can have these thoughts about whether a piece is going to work or fail. But embroidery artists need to realise their worth and the worth of their craft, because if they don’t, then other people will just trivialise this medium. For instance, if you’re going to charge RM25 for an embroidered piece, then they’re going to have a hard time establishing themselves in the future. Once embroidery artists know their own worth, then the public will value their work as well. 

TCRM: Why do you think it’s important for embroidery artists to know their own worth?

JJ: So they can stand up for themselves and defend the work that they do. So, they won’t sell themselves short and won’t be taken advantage of.

His works are also commercial.

TCRM: Going back to your KK roots, what advice would you give to other KK creatives on what they can use from their background to bring something new to the Malaysian scene?

JJ: KK has incredible talent. All I say is, if you want to do it, do it. Don’t be half-assed when it comes to your art. KK is a melting pot, but there’s a, I wouldn’t say politics, but when it comes to identity, a person is a melting pot of identities. I am myself Kadazan, Indian, and Chinese. But artists don’t have to use their ethnicity, because Sabah is more than that, actually. If they want to use it, they can, but use it tastefully. They can also explore other ideas and muses. 

TCRM: If KK artists were to find inspiration from their ethnic background, how can they – in your own words – do this ‘tastefully’?

JJ: I believe that first and foremost, they must do some soul searching and have answers for very important questions. ‘Why do I want to do this and why is it important that I do it?’. Ethnic backgrounds, histories, stories and identities are not mere ornamental. They are to be respected and studied so they can be appreciated at a deeper level and therefore, the work that they do have deeper contexts. Otherwise, they can fall into the trap of jumping the bandwagon and appropriation. There are many ways of doing things and I can’t tell exactly how can they do it tastefully. But what they can do if they’re taking this path is look for artists who are doing ethnic or indigenous work or who work with indigenous communities. Read about them and they work that they do while also looking into themselves. Knowledge comes first, taste can be developed.

TCRM Any hints on what your upcoming projects are?

JJ I’m actually planning a show in KK in 2022. I’m excited because it’ll be a platform where I showcase all my political embroidered works, as well as a new piece I’m working on to the local crowd in KK. 

To view more of his works, check out his Instagram.