Cristina NualART

Tag: Art

Book review: Southeast Asian photography

Photography in Southeast Asia. A Survey is a book by Zhuang Wubin that I  highly recommend. My full book review can be read on Third Text.
The book is published by National University Singapore (2016), and will be of particular interest to lovers of photography and/or Southeast Asia.

ThirdText web view SEA

In short: this work is the result of an ambitious body of research that spans ten countries in Southeast Asia. Zhuang Wubin packs a lot of information into his book, limiting and neatly condensing what could easily be a far bigger volume. To contextualise each country, he gives only the bare bones of socio-historical facts, but the fascinating background information on each photographer is fast-paced with personal details, anecdotes and excerpts from interviews that give us a rounded sense of the person…

Art, Cultural Mediation and Diversity


In Madrid from 12-16 September 2016, European research teams from universities, museums and community organizations met at the conference Art, Cultural Mediation and Diversity. Divercity: diversity in the musem and the city.

This week-long conference has two parts to it. Panels of speakers show images and videos and speak of their work. The conference also includes participative sessions, where instead of a more formal, seated, exchange of knowledge and examples, we take part in activities such as those one might do with a museum, a school, a social refuge, or a cultural centre. Alongside people from all corners of Europe, who work in places from prestigious museums to women’s refuges, we explored personal connections to public art, practiced methods to encourage empathy, and improvised creative responses to confront stereotypes.

I don’t know if I would have thought of it had I been involved in planning a conference on this topic, but it seems obvious in retrospect that a stencil workshop is a great thing to offer. I enjoyed all talks and activities, but I really went into that wonderful flow mode while making my stencil.


My stencil work, with a Janus head intended to be turned upside down.

Urban guerrilla warfare was not the aim of the workshop, but by showing how to draw, cut and spray a piece of stencil art, the seeds are planted for us to contemplate inserting stenciled image-messages into cities. I don’t feel any desperate need ‘to be heard’ by the city, so personally I’m not planning to spray my thoughts on brick walls just yet. Instead, I went for the wearables market, and sprayed my message on a shopping bag. Thus, my message will be advertised from my person, as and when I choose to silently shout out in the public sphere.



The making of Death of the Arteacher, by Cristina Nualart.


Death of the Arteacher is the little sentence I came up with to sum up a lot of the ideas churning in my head as I reflect on art education, something that for years I’ve been involved with in multifaceted ways. I reference Barthes’ Death of the Author, with its suggestions that readers (or by implication, viewers) have agency in a meaning-making process. My message also comments on some stereotypes that weight on art educators, unfairly assumed, sometimes, to be not very skilled/talented/’useful’, either by ‘professional’ artists or by the public at large. (In a future blog post I will cover some funny anecdotes from my personal experiences).

An important overarching fact that transpires from the conference presentations is that institutions, in this case mostly art museums, are continuously reaching out to NGOs and grass roots or social organizations to get ‘diverse’ people involved in their activities. There is clearly an institutional drive to look for people who may be at risk of social exclusion and to set up initiatives specifically for these people to take part in. Many of the conference speakers were constantly improving and/or questioning their review systems and ways of evaluating their work and getting feedback to help ascertain the impact it may have had.

Social change is often a slow process, and no one is deluded that any cultural project is going to make radical improvements to the social fabric, but the feeling amongst conference participants is that these small changes that are activated by one person doing something in collaboration with a museum’s education department will bring long term benefits to that person and those in their circle. If the start of social change is merely that the elitist aura that hangs over museums is dispersing, that alone, we can imagine, is going to improve the world a little bit.

Another commonality is that large institutions are increasingly reaching out, working outside of the museum walls and taking their staff to the periphery of the city, or simply working in a public space which may be perceived as ‘neutral’ or has a connection to the participants of a project.

No institution works in vacuum; ideas cross-pollinate; museums and schools feed off each other. Given that museums seem to be increasingly developing similar projects to those offered by schools and other education providers, the question that I reflect on is what is the role of the museum, beyond the obviously great work of making art less ‘scary’ and more inclusive. I ask myself if museums shouldn’t be aiming to create situations where the various canons and power structures of the museum itself are questioned. In no way wishing to demean the value of any educational programme in a museum, my question did raise a few feathers among some panelists, but one beautiful answer was simple: that is the next step, but first we do we need to get people from all sectors of society comfortable enough with art and museums that such a question can be debated. We shall all keep working and reflecting on this!

YouTube channel on one of the feminist research projects: Madrid Ciudad de las Mujeres

The Divercity word play  reminds me of DomestiCity, my photo essay on domestic use of public space Vietnam (and some unusual examples of domestic work in private spaces).






25 Years of Freedom – A Vietnamese Gallery’s Vision

ArtRadar_article_screenshot_webThis article was published on Art Radar on 1 August 2014.


From the postwar to Vietnam’s economic boom, Tu Do Gallery has been running successfully for a quarter of a century in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over a decade after the unification of Vietnam, the regime’s Doi Moi reforms allowed private enterprises to be formed. One of the first of these enterprises was Tu Do art gallery. 25 years later, it continues to operate from its base in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

I asked the owner Mr Dang Son, who is now 78, the same question that many of his friends had asked him when he started out: how could an art gallery survive in a country with so many pressing needs? ‘Luckily’, he smiles.

In the late 80s, husband and wife Son and Ha reunited after his return from a re-education camp. The couple lived in a house on the centrally located Dong Khoi street (formerly Tu Do, meaning freedom), which they renovated to turn into a shop. When Nguyen Tuan Khanh, the artist better known as Rung, suggested that he exhibit his paintings in their house, the would-be shop became the first private gallery in South Vietnam.

There was no artistic activity in the city, the gallery owner explains, because there were virtually no public or private art spaces in fresh-faced Vietnam.

Read the full article on Art Radar here.




Text and photos (2010-2014) by Cristina Nualart


How is lacquer painting evolving in the 21st century?

TuDo_Word_April14_cnualartThis article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, April 2014, p.166.


“MEMORIES”, lacquer exhibition by 5 artists,
Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, D1, HCMC, Vietnam.
Until 30 March 2014.


Imagine inspecting molten asphalt that has been poured like lava over Pompeii. Tu Do’s group exhibition of lacquer paintings should be looked at close up. Forget what the shapes may represent. Get close enough to smell the oily vapours of the medium.


One must put aside dismissive prejudices about subject matter to see how lacquer painting is evolving. Bear in mind that even the Le brothers, the Hue duo of rising art stars who recently participated in the Singapore Biennale, make brightly coloured lacquers that on first impressions look a lot like shop-ready commercial art, whilst simultaneously creating stunning video work and metaphorically rich performance art.

TuDoLacquer1_cnualartThe mid to late 90s in Vietnam were still a time in which experimental artworks were uncommon. That art was made at all during those difficult times should be celebrated. For this reason Phunam’s conventional lacquers are, for the period, not to be dismissed. His are the oldest works in this exhibition. Works made a decade later are understandably richer in new techniques, but Phunam’s large depiction of a tribal musical performance should be admired for the complimentary colour contrast beating all over the picture. The faces, too, are unusual in their balaklava-like synthesis.

TuDoLacquer2_cnualartTradition demands that a lacquer painting should be sanded and rubbed until all brushstrokes have been bulldozed into a perfectly flat image. Xuan Chieu is the artist in this show who best represents that esteemed practice. Inlays of eggshell and mother of pearl have been finely grinded. Patches of gold leaf gleam amongst the original powdered mineral colours that tradition calls for: three shades of red, and ocres. Geometric forms in indigo blue and forest green are rarer in first generation lacquer paintings, so enjoy their Sapa-like coolness.

TuDoLacquer3_cnualartThe pastel colours in Duong Tuan Kiet’s paintings indicate that they contain little natural lacquer, a treacle too dark to permit sugar pinks and mint greens, when used as art schools teach. His pieces look like oil panting on canvas, whereas lacquer is always painted on smooth wooden surfaces. Kiet does cover the blank canvas in gold leaf before he paints, a technique used in lacquer to give glow to the painting. These canvases propose another innovation in lacquer’s evolution: its inclusion into the vast collection of ‘mixed media’ paintings.


TuDoLacquer5_cnualartVo Xuan Huy is an art lecturer from Hue who tries to take lacquer painting to the third dimension. Thick impasto, deep cracks, puddles of honeyed glass and ripples formed by fast evaporation are the geography of his abstracts. Lotus flowers, Chi circles and other easy symbols stamped into the pigmented mud do seem to cheapen the visual experience from afar, but I have not come across another artist who is so keen to sabotage the polished surface of traditional lacquer.

TuDoLacquer6_cnualartNguyen Xuan Anh moves from urban depictions to experimental abstracts. The latter are very interesting. The two large ones in this show are vigourous expressionistic exercises, with texture reminiscent of Tapies and graphic power as strong as Franz Kline’s. Anh collages sack cloth and drips colour onto otherwise traditionally crafted lacquers abundant in polished eggshell.

Whilst other lacquer artists elsewhere are creating new finishes by using spray paint and glass-like polyester resin, the art in this show is innovative within the limits of possibility of natural lacquer.

24 hours to reflect on gender

I glazed this ceramic plate last millennium. It’s called Oppressed Woman.
Not all is bad for women on this planet, but it takes very little research to see that there is much gender inequality hindering humanity. Much of that inequality is invisible to many people who have not yet challenged how much of their own attitudes and values comes from gender biased ideologies. Whichever way you celebrate women, I hope that it brings you to a better place.


Vietnam’s 2013 art scene ends with a bang: Tiffany Chung

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, January 2014, p.16.


In Vietnam, it is rare to see exhibitions of the most prominent Vietnamese artists. The stars of the country’s artworld are in high demand in art fairs, biennials and museums of other parts of the globe. In her career spanning little over a decade, Tiffany has, on average, exhibited 1 solo show and 2 groups shows every year, and participated in 1 biennial or triennial every 2 years. Her art has travelled from cities across the US, to Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East.

The last time Tiffany’s paintings and sculptures were shown in Vietnam was 5 years ago, at Galerie Quynh, HCMC, where her new show An Archeology Project for Future Remembrance can be seen until 10 January 2014.


This exhibition is possibly the first in Vietnam that shows the type of interdisciplinary research that is making waves in intellectual circles. At some point in the second half of the 20th century, the modernist admiration for the instinctual genius of the artist gave way to a trend for intelligent artworks that demonstrated the artist’s ability to articulate theories and illustrate concepts. Saigon resident Tiffany Chung’s brainpower seems to be switched onto hyperactive all the time.

Tiffany speaks with energy and sharp insight. Her research is a solid back up for her unapologetic opinions. For a long time, she has been a good friend of Erik Harms, assistant professor of Anthropoly at Yale. In the Dong Khoi space, the collaboration between the artist and the anthropologist is presented linearly. Excerpts from Erik Harms next book are glossy art objects. Selected passages of colonialist propaganda and historical descriptions of Saigon are also readable art. But the research is not just text, it is drawn into the maps and crafted into the sculptures.



The drawings on vellum paper, velvety and translucent, are based on historical maps or futuristic maps projecting urban plans of areas yet to be built. The gleeful layers of the drawing, minute doodley patterns in pretty colours, deceive us into thinking they are imaginative fabrications. Their hidden research tells other stories. The maps – a trademark of her art practice – critique the political decisions that shape borders, lead to wars, construct artificial communities or displace people. The six map drawings in this show are specifically about areas in South Vietnam, mostly referencing the forced evictions of people who lived on land the government wants to turn into a fancy financial district. The 3 channel video art also comments on that issue.


 The gem of the exhibition is the hanging installation Stored in a jar: monsoon, drowning fish, color of water, and the floating world. The piece was commissioned by the Singapore Biennale in 2011. On glass puddles, dozens of miniature houses, houseboats and boats are aligned with neat gardens reminiscent of a middle-class American suburb.


Detailed architectural models are inspired by traditional Asian design and materials. Rather than glorifying colonial architecture, Tiffany’s art admires older vernacular architecture. Not for sentimental reasons, however. The design of her mini housing project is informed by in depth research, adapting ideas from all over the region, from Japan to Thailand as well as Vietnam, and crafting the models with cutting-edge technology. The modern and the traditional coexist.

The overall magical appearance of this calming and poised artwork is a plan for a portable model of sustainable urbanism. Wooden houses, some on stilts, have solar panels and rainwater collectors. One of Tiffany’s pet topics is climate change. The evidence, she illustrates, is that the Mekong region will be in knee-deep trouble in coming decades. Floods will increase their devastating capacity, so we should prepare for it. Perhaps creating floating communities.


Artist Himiko Nguyen comes back from the dark.

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, December 2013, pp. 98-99.


Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko's artwork in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013


‘What are you doing?’ asked elder sister.
‘I’m looking for hell’, answered Be Chinh, the little girl who was digging up the earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling Baby Nine. Hoang, her real name, found hell much later, in Saigon, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.

Last year, a friend called me with bad news. A local newspaper had reported that Hoang, popularly known as Himiko, was in a coma following a road accident. The cause of the accident varies with the source. Depending on the newspaper, the friend, or the day you ask Himiko herself, it either involved alcohol (although several of her friends report that she doesn’t drink), or someone who drove into her while she stood on a pavement, or that she lost control of a friend’s powerful motorbike that she’d borrowed.

Whatever happened, it led to grave head injuries. Surgeons cut out a piece of her cranium to minimise the damage of brain swelling. She was in a very dangerous coma for days. Weeks later, conscious again, she started a visual diary on Facebook. The unflinching photos of stitches and scars are not for the faint hearted. They are testament to the highly skilled medical team, who grafted back the part of the skull bone they had frozen.

Himiko says her life turned into a Korean film: following a dramatic accident, the protagonist breaks up with their lover, and it all ends in tears.

Storms of tears flowed. Not from pain. ‘After the accident I was always crying loudly and having tantrums, like a 5 year old child,’ she laughs. ‘People who are broken in the head come back as children.’ The thirtysomething artist chuckles, ‘I think now I’m 13.’

Himiko’s grin turns into an intense expression. She explains that researching brain injuries has helped her understand the changes caused by the accident, the recovery process, and the split from her former partner. She raves about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on brain science.

In less than a year, her recovery has been remarkable. ‘I didn’t die because before I had done yoga training 3 or 4 days a week,’ she says beaming. Himiko tackled her rehabilitation like a steamroller, but acknowledges the care she received. She’s particularly grateful to the free acupuncture treatment a volunteer gave her, to reduce the facial paralysis.

Concussion can affect language skills. The first time I saw Himiko after the accident she told me she wanted to practice English, because her Vietnamese had become childish. This is coming from someone who studied Russian, and who worked as a translator in Japan to save money to study art.

‘My family do not understand about art. My family is very poor, we couldn’t all study at university,’ says the ninth sibling who started making origami art for friends’ birthdays, since she could not afford to buy gifts. She put herself through university and saw her art prices rise to the top of her cohort. ‘5 years and beginning’ was Himiko’s university thesis, finished in 2005 after 5 years at art school. She’s now onto another beginning, one in which she wears hats more than she used to. But inside her head, I imagine fireworks. Her ambitions and artistic ideas must flash around at strobe speed.

Himiko continues to make art from her ‘Old Dreams’ studio in central HCMC. Any artwork she sells is funding her dreams, new or old. Excited about her next project, a further development of a photographic series titled ‘Come Out’, Himiko emails curators at luxury hotels, takes calls from galleries, and receives private collectors. ‘She is a true artist. She has given up everything for art,’ applauds one of these private collectors, who has known Himiko since the start of her art career.

Her career started only two months after graduating, when she opened the first ‘Himiko café’. It was in the living room of a shared house. ‘I thought of opening a café because Vietnamese people always go in cafes, they don’t want to go in galleries and museums. They don’t know museums,’ Himiko analyses.

Saigon was a different place in 2005. There were hardly any galleries. Himiko’s success was to find a way to show art that suited the local mindset. Her determination to have more than the one exhibition a year she might get if she relied on other art spaces sparked it off. She knew the strengths and weaknesses of local artists.  ‘If artists want to exhibit in San Art [which didn’t exist at the time] or Galerie Quynh, they need to write a proposal and this is difficult. With Himiko they got a yes. I understand them.’ Her low bureaucracy approach gave opportunities to many, and the rotating exhibitions made the café a more interesting place to go.

At first, she says, customers didn’t care about the artwork. People came because word of mouth rated hers as one of the top cafes in HCMC. Himiko makes it sound like it was easy, but organising exhibitions with young artists had its challenges. ‘Saigon artists want to be free,’ Himiko observes. ‘They cannot keep time. The exhibition is always installed one week after the deadline.’ She learnt to wait until the artwork was actually on the walls before informing the newspapers about the exhibition opening.

The grass roots, low-fi approach might suggest a somewhat provincial art style. Not Himiko’s. Far from it. Her artwork is in two important collections of Vietnamese art.

One day the authorities came to close down the alternative art space they had kept a eye on. The culprit was nude photography, too risqué for millennial Vietnam. But Himiko café was reborn a second time in a different location. It lasted some years before the same thing happened again. She opened a third, but was unable to keep it following her accident. She is now waiting for an investor to help her set up a new café. She ploughed money from her art sales in the cafes. Now Himiko owes nothing, but is back at square one.

It shouldn’t be a problem for her to begin again. ‘If you believe in good you get good energy,’ she says. Before the accident she got on with her life and didn’t think much about others. Now the sound of an ambulance makes her take stock. ‘Before [the accident] I didn’t care,’ she says, explaining how positive thinking gives strength, ‘but now I care.’

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Himiko working in her Old Dreams studio. Photo by Cristina Nualart 2013

Follow Himiko’s writings on

   “I am a sculptor. I don’t know about Picasso and Van Gogh.
I don’t know about History painting. I make the art I like.”

Text and photos by Cristina Nualart.

Art shop in Taipei

<img class="ngg-singlepic ngg-none alignleft" alt="taipeiartshop_cnualart" src="http://cristinanualart click here to” width=”317″ height=”417″ />Last week I participated in Taipei Art Photo 2013. Read about the fair here.

While I was in the calm and down to earth capital of Taiwan, I went to buy some art supplies. The shops near the National University are full of calligraphy brushes, hand made paper and other gems.

10 things you should know about Vietnamese Art

This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, September 2013, pp. 76-79.



1 Ceramics

ceramics_hcmc_historymuseumAncient civilizations of the Red River Valley, in the clay-rich north of Vietnam, learnt from China how to fire pottery. Khmer and Champa ceramics also influenced Vietnamese craftspeople. After the Chinese domination of Vietnam ended, during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Vietnam created the most sophisticated ceramics of Southeast Asia. In the 14th century, Japanese tea masters treasured their Vietnamese imports. European merchants traded vases from Bat Trang, a pottery village near Hanoi. But history praises and then dismisses. By the early 20th century this was all forgotten and Vietnamese ceramics were written off as provincial. But in 1997, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics dating back 500 years were found in a shipwreck off Hoi An, history paid attention again. Vietnamese ceramics really are special. Distinctive patterns include combinations of dragons and flowers, a duo not seen in Chinese pieces.

More recently, international art collections are buying some of the ceramic pieces created with tradition and wit by contemporary artist Bui Cong Khanh.

From 2012, Truong Sa island boasts a national record: the largest ceramic mosaic, a giant Vietnamese flag. Designed by artist Nguyen Thu Thuy, the 310.000 piece mosaic weights 3.5 tons. At 25 metres in length, it is so big it can be seen on satellite images.

2 Dong Ho woodcuts

Folk art has been celebrated as testament that the masses, not the ruling elite, are the makers of national culture. Historian Tran Quoc Vuong claims that ‘all the characteristics and superiority of Vietnamese culture are crystallized in the culture of villages’. Clans around Dong Ho village, in Northern Vietnam, made the village famous centuries ago for its woodcuts, a hand-made precursor to photocopies. An artisan carves lines onto a flat block of wood, covers it with ink and prints onto paper. Rustic pictures of proverbs, ritual ceremonies or daily scenes were displayed on walls. Some images symbolised good fortune or guarded the house, other prints alluded to social injustice. Smaller, joss-paper pictures of houses or vehicles are burnt as offerings.

3 Indochina Fine Arts School

Art, you might think, would offer some therapeutic solace when your country is experiencing a traumatic confrontation with an invading culture. In colonial times, artist To Ngoc Van, one of the ‘Four Masters’ of Vietnamese painting, wasn’t merely consoled by art. He saw art as an active instrument of change. Art, he felt, was a journey into new ways of understanding. His colleague Nguyen Gia Tri, like many of the poets and writers in 1930s Vietnam, wanted to ‘wash the eyes of the public, to enable them to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways’. Art enabled new ideas to be integrated with the old ones, and to extract the best of both worlds.

The Indochina Fine Arts School, inaugurated in 1925, married French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism, and gave birth to Vietnamese modern art. The two French founders, Tardieu and Inguimberty, strongly encouraged their art students to preserve their heritage by adapting local traditions. The school operated for only 20 years, but with irrevocable influence. For some time, this influence was a bone of contention, due to resentment towards French occupation. Now the institution is accepted as the catalyst of the nation’s modern art. The School’s graduates are highly revered artists who have put Vietnamese art on the international art market.

4 Lacquer

Laksa, a Sanskrit term meaning a hundred thousand, is where out word ‘lacquer’ derives from. Gum lacquer is a sticky substance secreted by insects. Obviously you’d need a hundred thousand or more to get any useful quantity of the gum. But in Vietnam the lacquer is plant-based, secreted by one of several varieties of native trees. The genuine product is a treacle-thick sap used to make wood waterproof. The urban myth is that the ubiquitous shiny vases and decorative paintings sold in every tourist shop across the country are ‘lacquer’. They are made with polyurethane resin, a toxic chemical compound that should not be used to serve food in.

Since Asian prehistory, lacquer was a resistant and decorative way to preserve wooden objects. Temples and palaces gleamed with the luster of lacquer, encrusted with mother of pearl or gold leaf patterns, captivating intrepid traders from the West. In the 1600s, ‘Chinese varnish’ became so popular with European high society that a fake lacquer was invented in Italy.

Whilst Japan and China argue over who developed the finest lacquerware, Vietnam turned lacquer into a Fine Art. After seeing the rich, glossy colours of the lacquered altar of the Temple of Literature, the art teacher of the Indochina Fine Arts School suggested to his students that they should try to paint with lacquer. They did. Traditional lacquerware technique met modern art, and history was made. Less than a century later, Vietnamese art is famous more than anything for its lacquer paintings, and Nguyen Gia Tri is the most respected lacquer painter.

nguyengiatri_lacquerCentral, South and North Spring Garden (1988) by Nguyen Gia Tri.
Lacquer on wood, 200×540 cm. Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 

5 Silk Painting

The fragility of fine silk probably means that considerable silk paintings have been lost since the technique was adopted from China around the 3rd century. Vietnamese silk painting had its heyday in the 1920s, when misty, soft, images were created by Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), ironically, because he wasn’t doing so well at mastering oil paint. After he exhibited his lyrical silk art in Paris in 1931, his career took off and he became an international sensation from Milan to Tokyo. As the master of Vietnamese silk painting, his success continues. Earlier this year one of his works fetched record prices ($380.000) at an art auction in Hong Kong.

The delicate art of silk painting is used with reinvigorated panache by contemporary Vietnamese artists Le Hoang Bich Phuong and Bui Tien Tuan, among others.

6 Soldier Artists

In 1950 a new art school was set up in Viet Bac, the Resistance Zone, to train artists who could produce easy to understand visual messages to unite the people into rising up against colonial rule. Artists were seen as the soldiers of the front that was the cultural battlefield. Some of them also fought in combat, as well as recording the revolution’s progress in a pre-gadget age. The art school was spearheaded by To Ngoc Van, the artist whose education at the Indochina Fine Arts School had made him see art as an instrument of change. He died before the 1954 victory of  Dien Bien Phu. The Resistance Class operated for 5 years, flourishing due to its isolation from the outside world and the fervour of its mission.

7 Propaganda Art

National art workers were recruited by the Ministry of Information in 1957 to make ‘real art’. Their propaganda posters were bright, original and direct, just what is needed to motivate and persuade effectively. Images of brave, defiant and hard-working people were painted with tempera on paper, and sometimes copied by amateurs to disseminate them on walls and bridges all over the country. The ‘scientific, national and popular’ style that could ‘portray the truth’, was officially defined as Socialist Realism, since its debut in the International Fine Arts Exhibition of 1958.

At present there are fewer than 10 full-time propaganda artists left in Vietnam. One still active is Luang Anh Dung, who says he loves the job he has been doing for 30 years, because it has the power to help people understand government policies. In post-reform Vietnam, his images show not only the soldiers and farmers that inspired previous generations; now we see computer programmers and office workers as symbols of development and economic growth.

Digitally printed images, sadly, loose the charisma that made the original hand painted propaganda posters become collectors items.

8 Abstract Art

Vietnamese paintings of the 1930s frequently show 19th century European techniques. But flashes of Picasso’s influence made it into some works inclined towards new ways of expressing reality.  Ta Ty (1922-2004) had been a Revolutionary artist, but has become better known for experimenting with non-representational art. By chance, he was able to see a French magazine with pictures of European Avant-Garde art. He must have been jolted, but he relished the intellectual aspect of trying to understand these paintings. Curious to explore, he tried it for himself.

In Hanoi, a 1951 solo exhibition of Ta Ty’s cubist paintings caused some controversy, as you might expect if you show pictures that people don’t understand. Party Secretary Truong Chinh fiercely opposed the new painting styles. Despite the critique, Ta Ty, was keen to investigate the potential of these breakthrough artistic ideas, and by the 1960s, he was making abstract art. Few other Vietnamese artists have become abstract painters, perhaps disappointed that abstract art was banned from national exhibitions until 1990. All over the world, abstract art has been accused of evil wrongdoings by detractors who like to know what they are looking at.

Aside from the artist’s estate, some of the few remaining works by Ta Ty in Vietnam can be found at Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, HCMC.

taty_hcmc_fineartsmuseumGrowing (1972) by Ta Ty. Oil on canvas, 170×320 cm.
Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum. 


9 Dinh Q. Le

‘Culture is a basic need’, declares the cover of the Prince Claus Fund brochure. In 2010, the Dutch foundation awarded a generous prize to artist Dinh Q. Le, for ‘exploring different constructions of reality, providing inspiration and practical opportunities for young artists, and for advancing free thought and contemporary visual expression’. Le’s artworks have challenged dominant American perceptions of the Vietnam War, by showing the damage done to Vietnam.

As a child, this artist from Ha Tien learnt from his aunt how to weave grass mats. As a university student in the US, he used that same weaving technique with large photographs, some of which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Le was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show in that seminal institution. Dinh Q. Le is also co-founder of the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in the US, and San Art, in HCMC.


Dinh Q Le receives the
Prince Claus Award
in Saigon in 2011.

10 Art Residencies in Vietnam

Artist-in-residence programmes are cultural exchange initiatives. A number of institutions all over the world fund artist residencies, giving artists anything from a small room to a several thousand dollars to buy art materials. They give creative practitioners the opportunity to work with other people, develop new art projects and share their ideas within a new community. Vietnamese artists have been invited, over the years, to work in other countries, from Japan to Germany, for a few weeks or months at a time.

But since May 2012, a residency programme exists in Vietnam: San Art Laboratory, in HCMC. Focusing on the talent in home territories (as yet, the programme does not fund international artists), it provides studio space, a stipend and a whole lot of expert artistic support to young Vietnamese artists. Six artists have benefited so far, and two more are currently starting their residency. The public gets access to Open Studios, artist talks and exhibitions, and the artists get everything they need to concentrate on their art for some months. Culture is shared!


Text and photos by Cristina Nualart


El silencio en el armario

casoalcacer1998_80x80_cnualartTengo un secreto en el armario de la ropa que no se usa. La ropa que está siempre fuera de estación, porque cuando salen las prendas estivales, entran las de invierno. Nunca es temporada para lo que esconde ese armario.

Detrás de algún abrigo largo, donde más oscuro está, hay un cuadro que no ha visto la luz, casi, casi, desde que lo terminé, en 1998. El caso Alcácer fué el primer feminicidio mediático que me golpeó de jovencita. Me dió pesadillas.

Enfrentada al horror humano, una pila de vendas (¡vendas!), alambre del que pincha, y pintura roja y negra se ofrecieron a mis manos como chivo expiatorio del subconsciente. 20 años después del crimen, el repelús sigue vivo, también en ese cuadro negro coronado de rosas sangrantes. Culpo al inconsciente colectivo por la simbología demasiado arquetípica.

Me asombro (nunca mejor dicho – me extirpé la sombra…) de las horas de trabajo, moldeándo a mano cada pétalo, con plena consciencia del tema del cuadro, y ningún recuerdo del horror que debía estar ocupando mi mente.

Terminado el cuadro, participé en una exposición colectiva en el centro juvenil de la población donde vivía. Pero rechazaron este cuadro, y yo sabía que me lo censuraban. Igual que la verdad de lo sucedido, la pintura espinosa desapareció en el armario que apenas se abre. Y allí sigue. Cubriéndose de polvo como las investigaciones cerradas.


Con otra obra, el mes que viene participaré en una exposición colectiva de arte feminista en Inglaterra, The Femail Project. Para que no todo lo que hay que gritar se quede amordazado.





Playing with toy diggers in ‘New Saigon’

I’m creating a mural of Saigon made from rubble from the houses demolished in what will be the future ‘New Saigon’, a financial district for this developing metropolis. Today I took my toy diggers to play on what used to be a house in this disintegrating community. And to collect more rubble omeprazole capsules.


 Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

 Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

How to save a village and age more rapidly

This exhibition review was published in the August 2013 issue of Word Vietnam magazine.

Artist Le Hien Minh’s use of Vietnamese dó paper

lehienminh_by_cnualart-jpg‘I don’t know how to use a drill, I don’t know how to cut wood,’ says the artist who refuses to call herself a sculptor because she doesn’t know how to use workshop machinery. And yet Le Hien Minh’s exhibition is full of surprising 3D objects.

Le Hien Minh labels ‘real’ sculpture as a noisy activity requiring power tools. Her artwork consists mostly of squashing paper softened with glue into shapes. It can be done quietly, with no tools except her hands. But this simple activity makes her partly responsible for keeping afloat the few Northern villages that still handcraft dó paper, a thin, soft paper made from tree bark.

Over five hundred kilos of traditional Vietnamese dó paper were needed to make one of the installations here. One thousand hand-made dictionaries in a neat labyrinth cover the floor of the largest room at the back of the 1930’s building.

Dictionaries were the tools of Minh’s father, a linguist. Her father passed away ten years ago, but the exhibition title, Dó10, refers to the ten years that Minh has been creating art using dó paper. After training in lacquer painting in Saigon, Minh studied art in America. Far away from family, Minh received a surprise parcel containing some dó paper. Her mother’s gift was more influential than either of them might have guessed at the time. Minh felt immediately connected to her homeland’s traditional paper, and started painting on it.

lehienminh_by_cnualart3-jpgA few more experiments resulted in the first sculptures, and she’s never looked back. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have dó paper,’ she reflects.

Each finished sculpture is put outside to dry and to age. The weathering effects of sun, humidity and wind change their surface. After a few months, the paper objects look like ceramics, stones or other treasures unearthed from the dusty depths of history.

This process gives a solid, weighty appearance to the hollow art objects. The weight is also psychological. She laments that women carry a heavy load in life. ‘Do we have to carry that much weight with us? We don’t know! We’re always asking ourselves,’ she exclaims, pointing to the sculpture of a woman floored by her struggle with ropes hanging down on her.

Weight doesn’t floor Minh, though. She sometimes wonders if, being a woman, she carries too much baggage, but as a feminist, she looks for balance. The underlying concept for all her artwork, she shares, is looking for balance. Not just the balance of a fair society, but internal balance as a person, and balance with nature. Minh makes work that will return to earth. ‘The paper will disintegrate and disappear, like me. Accept and make peace with nature.’

Hanoi-born artist Le Hien Minh exhibited at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum (20-25 July 2013). Some of the artworks in this show have appeared in previous exhibitions in Hanoi, HCMC, Korea and the US.



Unless otherwise specified, text and images © 2017 Cristina Nualart

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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