Artist Christine Ay Tjoe was about 18 when she began to see the world in a new way. “When I was a child, we lived in a very densely populated area in Bandung,” says Ay Tjoe, 47, referring to the Indonesian metropolis where she still lives today, now on its outskirts. “Our house was in a small alley. Around me, there were only buildings.” It wasn’t until her late teens, when she was studying graphic design at the Bandung Institute of Technology, that she started exploring the tropical forest that surrounds the city—and fell in love. “Trees are living creatures, but they are so different to humans. They are so calm, not aggressive, but can grow so big.”
Ay Tjoe has turned to nature for inspiration ever since, especially in the past year, when she has been forced to spend more time than ever in her home and studio, leading her to scour her immediate surroundings for ideas. “I moved to this house around seven years ago,” she says over a video call, speaking through an interpreter. “I chose it because of the trees around it: there are palm trees here, and it’s close to the forest. I thought it would be a good place to make my work.”
Her garden has partly inspired her latest series of paintings, which are being shown at White Cube in Hong Kong from May 18 to August 28. As with many of her most famous paintings, this new series blurs the lines between abstraction and figuration, featuring depictions of plants, animals and people buried beneath dramatic washes of colour. “Sometimes I am not trying to add certain figures, but in the process, I see the figures emerge and add them in,” says Ay Tjoe.
That may make Ay Tjoe’s approach seem happy-go-lucky, and she admits that she does not always make preparatory sketches for her sprawling paintings, which can stretch to more than two metres tall by two metres wide. But she says that her work requires intense concentration, and sometimes she slips into an almost trance-like state while painting.
“Most of the time, when I want to make a new series of work, I look at the blank and empty canvas and, based on my experiences, the painting just flows out,” says Ay Tjoe. “It’s like I find a spirit, and the spirit helps me make it.”
Spirituality guides not only Ay Tjoe’s work but also her life more broadly. She was raised by her parents as a Catholic, making the family part of a minority in Indonesia, where more than 85 per cent of the population is Muslim. “It was difficult,” says Ay Tjoe, who says she endured inner turmoil about her faith before finding peace during her teenage years. She remains Catholic today and at times describes her work almost as a God-given task. “I feel I need to keep on making my art—it’s like I’ve been given a road, a path, and that road is suitable to explore the big ideas that I have,” she says.