Christine Das: Stroking animals to life


Meet Christine Das, a Penang-born painter of nature and a constant presence in art galleries in Singapore and Hong Kong.

They say that, like the proverbial spinning wheel, nobody can reinvent art. I believe it’s true because, today, very few works of art manage to surprise me. More often than not, artists look back at previous trends to find their inspiration. The 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s are now dissected and replicated across all fields of arts and existence. The result is a series of cookie-cutter pieces and styles that might look stunning on the surface, but don’t really add anything crucial to their respective fields. Think of how the movie industry continues to produce sequels and remakes of blockbusters of the past.


Cultural-borrowing – to avoid the degrading term “copying” – happens prominently also in the art scene of South-East Asia. Local artists tend to look for inspiration elsewhere, forgetting their sense of belonging, their original geographies. There is a focus on preferring what comes from the West, rather than filter ideas through Asian sensibilities. In other words, very few of their works are able to move me deeply because they lack personal, authentic power.

It was with similar expectations that I stumbled upon an exhibition entitled “Homecoming”, which was held at the Performing Arts Centre of Penang (Penangpac) coinciding with the George Town Festival earlier this year. I thought it could be a good diversion with which to entertain my visiting parents and, apprehensively, we went.

MyPinang in check.

MyPinang in check #2.

I have to admit I was wrong as soon as I began taking in the mesmerising lines of a herd of pygmy elephants walking in the soft blues of the tropical night. Their shapes were created by an infinite association of small scales made up of contrasting but similarly toned colours. Finally! This was something. Reading up about the artist, I realised she was Malaysian and, typically for Malaysian artists, she was better known abroad than in her home country.

Christine Das, in fact, is represented by Maya Gallery in Singapore. She worked in Malaysia with 20th Century Fox on the set of Anna and the King in the mid- 1990s, and her artwork was selected for an installation project by Wei Ling Art Gallery at the 2013 Art Basel Exhibition in Hong Kong. Two of her works were also featured in the 2013 publication of International Contemporary Artists. In 2013, Das received the Woman of Style and Substance award from the Malaysian edition of Marie Claire.

As I became lost to the world examining the colourful animal figures which populate Das’s painted world, such as shy elephants standing in the thicket or birds with shimmering plumage, a voice brought me back to earth. “Can I help you?” asks a gracious, tall woman standing behind me. “I am Christine, the painter.” That was how I met Das, and how this interview came about.

Potpourri of life.

What struck me most about Das’s work is her technique – a blend of multicoloured strokes that hit against each other to create the edges of her figures. “My technique is actually pretty simple in application, but comes across as very complex in its finish,” says Das. “I use simple, fine strokes of small brushes with acrylic paint on canvas.

What I love most though is experimenting with colour combinations.” That is how she gives life to her creations on canvas. “I know I am definitely not the first to use linear techniques,” she continues, “but I believe that I crafted a way to make my work recognisable as my own, and to me, that is all that matters.”

She is absolutely right. Carving her niche style is something Das acquired through hard work and willingness to try her hand at different artistic platforms, such as during her cinematic experience in the mid-1990s. “Anna and the King was my first experience using brush on canvas,” remembers Das. “I was hired to help paint large-scale realistic village backdrops. I learned how to prime large canvases, how to mix odd colours and even how to age props. It was a sharp learning curve for me and by far one of the most memorable experiences of my life in the visual arts field. I admired the team’s professionalism and eye for detail.”

More recently, Das consolidated her style by concentrating on nature, especially on the fast-changing Malaysian environment. It is the figure of the elephant – particularly the pygmy species in Sabah – that fascinated Das. “Elephants have always touched my soul in a special way,” explains Das. “They are gentle giants that can teach us how to build strong family and community ties. We have so much to learn from them. It’s terrible when humans abuse and kill elephants for their personal gain, and obviously, I don’t support elephant rides, performances and circus acts. Ideally, elephants should be left alone and free in the wild.”


Das doesn’t just hope – since 2013, she has donated part of the income from the sale of her paintings to Borneo Pygmy Elephant conservation work. She was touched by the story of Lil’ Joe, the only survivor among a herd of 14 massacred pygmy elephants. In her painting Comfort, Das depicted herself as Mother Nature hugging Lil’ Joe to help it get through its trauma.

Potpourri of life 3.

“The story of Lil’ Joe is what ignited my support for elephant conservation,” explains Das. “Having met him in the flesh further convinced me of the great need to create awareness about these creatures. Some elephant paintings were specifically created for this purpose as part of my own little contribution to help them. In the meantime, I’m always connecting with various NGOs and conservationists who work towards saving and protecting wild elephants.”

It’s inevitable to ask Das, now based in KL, what she thinks about Penang’s recent transformation towards being Malaysia’s foremost arts hub. Das says that in past, she had to flee elsewhere to continue nurturing her artistic vocation, which today is her sole source of income. “I am actually glad that the art scene is finally finding its glory in Penang. I think the island is well on its way to becoming a Malaysian arts centre, although there is still much room for growth. After all, many big names in the local art scene were and are Penangites.”

Vision in line 2.

In this regard, I ask her what she thinks about Ernest Zacharevic, the Lithuanian who allegedly reignited the love for the arts – or perhaps the love for “selfies” in front of his art murals – in Penang. “I love Ernest’s works,” she says, “and after I met him in person, I can only say that yes, he did play a big part in reviving the interests of Malaysians from all walks of life and age towards art. This is very healthy in a day and age when schools hardly give any importance to artistic curricula and people are just focused on academic qualifications and making more money. I must thank Ernest for having boosted George Town’s fame globally.”

And I believe that, with a little bit of luck, Das can also help keep that Malaysian arts banner flying high internationally.

Find out more about Christine Das at


Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His rst novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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