Making Myths: An Interview with Charlotte Mui

by Ysabelle Cheung

I’m not sure what made me step into the wiccan shop one Saturday afternoon last year. I had found it on Google after entering a search for candles and I already knew that I wouldn’t find the kind I was looking for—beeswax, tapered, smokeless and straw yellow—but I went in anyway. The shop was more utilitarian than I expected: there were kits to ensure high grades at university; charms to clinch promotions at work; and tarot card decks, the shop assistant told me, that might help with “the uncertain future of Hong Kong.”

I realized then that I was, perhaps subconsciously, seeking alternatives to the way I had been addressing the world and its myriad instabilities. Mysticism, mythologies, and rituals had always been there, but I just hadn’t realized how one could incorporate them into daily life yet. I learned of Charlotte Mui and her practice much in the same way—not by just looking, but seeking. Occasionally a friend would mention her whilst talking about the future, or I would catch a glimpse of her soft, immersive watercolors on Instagram or on someone’s apartment wall.

Mui lives and works in Hong Kong, a place that raises people to be “a plethora of parts and stories that do not usually come from the same culture.” By day, she works at Asia Art Archive; during moonlit hours, she draws, paints, reads tarot cards, and contemplates reinvention. In this email interview, Mui discussed the idea of practical magic — how one can incorporate spiritual self-care in these “restless times” — and her interests in chimeric forms, mythologies, folklore, and art history.

Portrait of Charlotte Mui with artwork “The Devil.” Photo by Gayatri Joshi. All images courtesy of the artist.

You’ve mentioned that having an art history background has helped you tremendously in your work. Which artists/art movements in particular are you interested in?

In university, I was invested 17th century Baroque art — I went from Italian to Flemish to French. I was drawn to the pure theatricality of Bernini’s sculptures and of course, the paintings from the king of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio. Then it was the flowing textural brushstrokes of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and Judith Leyster. But towards my final years, I found solace in the quiet and stiff compositions of the French Baroque; I wrote 20-page long essays on the likes of Nicholas Poussin and Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, and spent weeks dissecting the same debates between the Flemish/Italian and the French, that the academy had back in the day. 

Nowadays, probably because of work, I’ve just been staring at the colourful abstract work of Pakistan artists like Zubeida Agha. Though her oeuvre isn’t publicly accessible, the few we could see, inform and help me improve my colour choices.

Images taken from the artist’s Instagram.

In your art, I’ve noticed that you return often to this theme of chimera: whether in your depiction of mythical creatures (such as AmabieSelkie or The Winged Lion) or conceptually, in puzzling together interlocking narratives and symbolisms. What draws you to this theme?

I always describe my work as mythological because of my fascination with legends and stories but “chimera” is actually the perfect word to describe it. Thank you for the attribution!

I’m sure the tale has been told many times by anyone who grew up in Hong Kong; we struggle with the concept of our own identity, and it’s something that is unavoidable for anyone creating any kind of art — part of it will always seep through. And in an extremely old-fashioned saying, Hong Kongers are the result of East meets West — we are made up of a plethora of parts and stories that do not usually come from the same culture. In that same way my story is made up of different things I like and connect with, mythologies included.

As we know, what we now consider “mythology” was once part of the main religion in different parts of the world. While there are minimal folk religious practices in my family (such as ancestral veneration and worship of tutelary deities), there’s always been the freedom to explore other practices and legends. Moreover, even though religion and folklore have their own origins, histories of colonization and migration make it so that they are no longer limited by geopolitical boundaries. Painting these stories is a way for me to both visually understand them, as well as learn from them to create my own.

But honestly, I just think they’re really fucking cool.

“High Priestess” (2020); created for early bird backers for the “L’Œil de L’Âme” Kickstarter

“Mythology is a veil I use to cloud my modes of expression in”

You mentioned in a previous interview that you come from a matriarchal family, and that your interest in spirituality comes from your aunt, who used to practice the dark arts. How do you think this early acknowledgement — of heritage and passing down through maternal lineages — frames your practice today?  

Ha ha, my aunt was really into the occult, and she didn’t really hide it from the rest of the family — I’ve basically inherited her collection of crystals, tarot decks, and spell books, and every few moons we’ll watch the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman classic Practical Magic after dinner.

“The Hermit” (2019), watercolour on paper.

If anything, having a large part of my interests shaped by that of my family’s (the occult is clearly not the only thing) made it easier to accept the weirder parts of who I am. Whether physical or ideological, these inheritances have given me a safe space for creativity because there’s always the knowledge that whatever I make, it doesn’t just carry my story but that of my family too.

But of course, there’s also the other side of the coin. I’m still trying to navigate and understand certain boundaries, like privacy issues as well as figuring out how much of a story is my family’s and how much is mine. In a sense that also ties into why I use mythology; it is a veil I use to cloud my modes of expression in.

Detail of “L’Œil de L’Âme” tarot deck.

You’re currently completing your own tarot deck, “L’Œil de L’Âme.” Tell me a little about the process of creating these cards — in your introduction text to the deck, you mention that each one carries its own personal memory and significance.

Some of these cards were made from compositional drafts that can be traced back to years ago. For example, I made a pen sketch of Death in 2016, shortly after I decided to move on from a reckless period of my life — the thirteenth card of a tarot deck implicates an ending to a bad cycle.

Another approach I took when creating the deck was to literally draw from memory. While The Lovers traditionally tells of a union or partnership, oftentimes a happy one, my version was created out of my first heartbreak. It’s a story of someone who stubbornly clings onto a partner who doesn’t love them back and, in the process, gets burned.

Left: “The Lovers” (2019), watercolour on paper;
Right: Detail of “L’Œil de L’Âme” tarot deck.

Perhaps the card with the most iterations is The Fool, which signifies a new beginning or a new chapter. It’s the one card that doesn’t have a stable place in a deck. It’s number 0 and therefore can belong anywhere in the line-up. Looking back, every time I drew one, immediately afterward something changed or was refreshed, as if I was opening up another stage in my life. It’s almost like a prediction.

The Fool (2019). watercolour on paper.

I’ve always been intrigued by the ubiquity of tarot card reading — I’ve had cards read in parlors at carnivals as well as by friends in much more casual settings. The term “reading” itself, to me, indicates an equalizing function, a kind of neutrality that can be accessed by anyone at any time. I was wondering what your thoughts were on tarot card reading in day-to-day life, and how you personally use it to guide your own practice. 

I am too! I’ve noticed, especially in recent times, that tarot, oracles, crystals, and other tools of spiritual connection have been rekindling its popularity — perhaps it’s a sign of restless times.

But I completely agree that it is an equalizer. While I’m not the most practical person, I believe that anyone can read tarot as the cards are merely tools to help you interpret what’s ahead of you on your current path. If you don’t like the results you see, you can always choose to change the course. Over centuries, the meanings of the more traditional decks (Rider-Waite-Smith and Marseille) have been solidified so you wouldn’t be too off the mark even if your interpretations are textbook definitions. There are plenty of books, online forums and mini guides that come with most decks to help you on your journey.

The artist conducting tarot readings at her solo exhibition
“L’Œil de L’Âme Tarot” (2019) at Be Tabula Rasa. Photo by the artist’s

I personally do daily draws, where I pull a card every morning just so I know what I might need to be wary of for the day. I also have a card which I have to draw in order to know whether or not I’m in the right state to read for other people (it’s the High Priestess). In general though, I read intuitively; there are images or colours or even flashes of words that show up in my head the moment I flip over a card.

Recently, though, I’ve used tarot cards to find my wallet. Another story for another day.

The first prototype deck of the 22 Major Arcana cards from “L’Œil de L’Âme” tarot deck. Photo by Jam from Be Tabula Rasa.

In one of your blog posts, you talk a little about the anxiety of production and the chasm between what you envision and what is on paper. How do you navigate capitalism and other real-world stresses when it comes to making your art?

Honestly, I’m just learning how to take the world in one step at a time because I don’t think there’s ever going to be a healthy way to balance this. I usually go through a cycle where I work on whatever is on a crunch time deadline, then fall into the abyss of crippling self doubt which is mostly based on how I feel other people perceive me, then redo whatever project it is I’m working on, and repeat that until the deadline hits. But after the pandemic and thanks to some very helpful advice from several friends, I’m finally learning to not care about the general public’s opinions — it will never be enough nor will it ever be satisfying. Instead, I’m learning to cater to a group of imaginary people who somehow have the exact same taste as me. 

I really don’t know how to explain this but somehow it works in my head and I’m definitely not pulling my hair out anymore.

Left: “The Fool” (2016), ink on sketchbook paper.
Right: “The Fool”(2016), watercolour on paper.

How can we cultivate spiritual self-care for ourselves in this time?

Self care is different to everyone so there really isn’t a need to run out and buy crystals and tarot cards and stuff — it is honestly a matter of whether or not you want to try using spirituality as a way for self comfort. I’ve learnt that self care is a mindset, it doesn’t really exist unless you’re willing to let go of stubborn preconceptions about the world and yourself. All the spirituality items you see on the market nowadays are merely tools to help and lead you in opening up your mind; even for tarot reading, if you’re not willing to open up, the cards will also have a hard time in connecting with you. On that note, if you do decide to buy a deck of tarot or oracle cards, remember that decks have their own personalities and spirits, so it’s best you pick one that connects with you (such as liking the artwork, something that just draws you to it, or you could even leave it up to fate).

“L’Œil de L’Âme” tarot deck.

Left: “Death” (2019), watercolour on paper.
Right: “The High Priestess” (2019), watercolour on paper.
The artist giving a tour of her exhibition “L’Œil de L’Âme Tarot” (2019) at Be Tabula Rasa. Photo by Emily Wong.

You can see more of Charlotte’s works on her website or Instagram.