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Tjutju Widjaja: When Chinese Calligraphy Meets Contemporary Expressionist Art In Indonesia

The emergence of Tjutju Widjaja (b. 1941) as an artist in the field of Indonesian contemporary art is truly momentous to behold.

Driven by passion and creative energy, Tjutju at the age of 79, became arguably the first Chinese-Indonesian female artist to create a unique art form rooted in Chinese calligraphy and framed by the contemporary principles of visual art.

Late Beginnings

Tjutju began her artistic path fairly late in her life — when she entered Maranatha Christian University’s Faculty of Art and Design, she was already 62. Her journey in contemporary art began when she became curious about the workings of glass, a material that was sold amongst the building and sanitary supplies stocked in convenience stores owned by herself and her husband in Bandung.

While Tjutju’s clientele was interested in acquiring glass for building and manufacturing purposes, Tjutju found herself wanting to know more about the materiality and aesthetic qualities of the glass. This prompted her to enroll in Maranatha where she was given the opportunity to navigate a veritable maze of art knowledge, covering subjects such as art history, aesthetics, ethics and environmental perspectives of visual art, amongst others.

While there were no straight or easy answers to be found, Tjutju excelled in her art studies, eventually obtaining her Bachelor’s degree with honours and later in 2010, a Master’s degree at the Department of Visual Art and Design of the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (also known as ‘ITB’). Her art studies then took a backseat for a number of years while she dealt with family illnesses and tragedies, but by 2016 she was back at it, applying for a place in the Doctoral programme of ITB. Here, she faced a roadblock and was initially denied admission on the grounds of being too elderly.

Breaking Glass Ceilings

Thankfully, Tjutju’s prior academic achievements had been excellent, and through the assistance of well-known mentors such as Professor Setiawan Sabana, she was eventually able to resume her studies, focusing her research on the subject of the vihara (a type of Buddhist monastery, or temple) and its priestesses (or zhai ji).

The inspiration for this particular subject matter drew from Tjutju’s childhood experiences of visiting the Buddhi Vihara in Bandung and its priestesses with her mother. She came to realise that the zhai ji were in fact unwanted children who had been dumped at the temple as babies, and this notion of abandonment haunted her for years.

Tjutju saw her art practice as a way of expressing her sadness, as well as her admiration for the orphans’ will to survive regardless of the challenges facing them. Parallels can perhaps be drawn between their courage and Tjutju’s own tenacity in overcoming her personal and professional challenges, be they in the realm of personal tragedies or in the ageist discrimination experienced by her in the admission process for her art school PhD programme. While her initial passion for the arts was driven by her interest in glass, Tjutju later focused on transforming her skills in Chinese calligraphy—an art form that she had been trained in as a child, learning from her father and other family members—into a new contemporary artistic practice.

Diving deeper, Tjutju reveals that her artistic expressions were in fact also a kind of protest against the patriarchal culture of Confucianism, and the fact that Chinese calligraphic arts were often viewed as male-dominated practices.

Tjutju’s painting Brave, 2020.
Rhythm of Love, 2020

In December 2020, at the age of 79, Tjutju obtained her PhD from ITB.

“Action painting”

 On a cool sunny day in June 2021,  the Indonesian public watched the 80-year-old Tjutju perform live in an action painting session at the Bandung amphitheatre of the influential Selasar Sunaryo Art Space (SSAS):

Tjutju with artist Sunaryo Suton, the owner of Selasar Sunaryo

The performance was a lead-up to Tjutju’s solo exhibition of 17 works at Bale Tonggoh (the “Upper Hall”)  at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space.

With her huge brush swinging over the canvas laid on the ground, Tjutju’s work recalled the practice of American abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock:

However, while Pollock may have splashed his paints in spontaneous motions to express his inner feelings, Tjutju’s expressive art was ingrained with the intuition and philosophical thought that are hallmarks of her calligraphic background, perceived through principles of Western modern art.

First, Tjutju would sit or stand before her canvas covered with several layers of xuan (rice) paper, quietly beginning with meditative contemplation, reflecting upon the Buddhist priestesses’ traumatic experiences in babyhood. She would start applying a light wash of ink start on the first layer of paper when her reflections had picked up in momentum.

Once done with the first layer of paper, she would move on to reveal the second layer where remnants of the marks and strokes from the first layer would have been absorbed. Going over these marks with a thicker ink wash, Tjutju would then meditate on the development of the abandoned babies. This process would be repeated across each subsequent sheet of paper with the same kind of ritualistic, repetitive quality until the last layer was reached. Thicker layers of ink would be applied, one after the other, until the final image appeared in its entirety on the canvas lying beneath the layers of paper.

The tenacity and agility of Tjutju’s oeuvre attracted the attention of Sunaryo Sutono, the owner of Selasar Sunaryo, who used to be her client at her shop selling building materials.

In the context of contemporary art, Sunaryo compares her practice to a tree with blooming foliage above ground while it sinks deeply into the earth with its roots.

“Her art is not only about technique and aesthetics,” he explained, “there is a lot of symbolism about life, and the search for harmony and balancing energies in the universe.”

In Tjutju’s 2021 performance, Sunaryo invited the artist to create a collaborative work with him, which was eventually realized at the closure of the action painting session. Tjutju painted the expressive strokes that set out the initial premise for the piece.  Sunaryo then came in, adding lines and small dots, and eventually a large red dot in the painting, drawing the viewer’s entire focus of the work to its centre. Sunaryo’s interventions complemented Tjutju’s philosophic notions well, infusing the painting with a fresh and contemporary feel.

Sunaryo, working collaboratively with Tjutju
Sunaryo, placing the finishing touches on the collaborative work

Unfettered by age or personal setbacks, Tjutju’s practice is a courageous and inspirational one. Her creative art process, driven by a combination of ingrained calligraphic philosophies, passionate academic research and moving life experience, has truly resulted in the creation of a sublime artistic practice in contemporary art in Indonesia.


All images courtesy of Humanika Creative Design



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