Cristina NualART

Tag: censorship

We Are Asia – Art Stage Singapore 2014

This article was cross-posted on the Hanoi Grapevine.

<span style="line-height: 1 read here.5em;”>marinabaysandssilouhette_cnualart‘We Are Asia’ was the title of the 4th edition of Art Stage. Of the many art fairs mushrooming all over Asia, Art Stage Singapore has probably chosen the most glamorous venue: Marina Bay Sands. Yet the 4th edition of this fair tried to counteract the elitism that the artworld sometimes lounges in.

Art Stage attempted to bridge the gap between high-brow collectors and the general public. For a commercial art fair, it offered more tours than many museums. Art stage organisers planned a strong educational programme to attract a middle class audience that might otherwise shy away from all the glitz and price tags with lots of zeros.

Many of the scheduled tours focused on the regional platforms, as they termed 8 mini-exhibitions on Southeast Asia, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Central Asia. Commissioned to specialist curators, the platforms were a commercial venture (all the works were for sale) but with a clear aim to highlight regional characteristics of the art from each area.


The platforms served also as a welcome respite from the aisles of eye-catching but barren works that populate art fairs: quirky sculptures, embroidered canvases, Manga style figures, gloss and glitter. Below is a selection of the more intellectually captivating artworks from these platforms.

From China, artist Qiu Zhijie presents a multi-artist project on fantasy sculptures, and this ink drawing:  The Politics of Laughing (detail), 2013, 145 x 220 cm. Take a moment to read some locations and wonder at the real places you would give each name to.

Korean photographer Seung-Woo Back has done an analogue remix in Utopia, a wall-to-wall photograph framed in strips. Each strip was developed in a different country, which explains the colour variations. The cityscape of monolithic, sterile buildings is of North Korea. The cold colours and lack of people add a fearsome tint to the massive skyscrapers.

The Australian Platform was the weakest, with inconsistent topics, quality and approaches. The only remarkable piece was this video installation called Syria. This timely piece by Lebanese-Australian Khaled Sabsabi is a remix of Damascus footage cut to move in neverending islamic patterns.

From the Philippines, Mark Justiniani recreates traditional wooden boats, inventing a low-tech way to create optical illusions of baffling perspective and depth.

Singaporean artist Donna Ong uses hand cut pictures from old books in her commissioned furniture lightboxes titled And We Were Like Those Who Dream. Patient handcrafting gives the objects a magical appearance that is really heart warming. The pieces work as little treasure troves, like Orhan Pamuk’s memorabilia in the Museum of Innocence.

Taiwanese artist Tu Wei-Cheng supports in vintage furniture his optical illusions. The Emperor’s Chest is the story of how forgotten Victorian toys and other antique devices become alive again in cabinets and dressing tables. Like in The Nutcracker, once the toys are alive, they become real. The people are contemporary dancers in a multilayered cityscape, a theatre of the absurd. artstage2014_cnualart_tuweicheng

FX Harsono, from Indonesia, authored one of the most powerful artworks in the whole fair. He also uses furniture, but combines multiple message channels in the installation: from the artist’s own poetry, to LED light displays, to book covers. The Raining Bed splashes political commentary in a direct, clever and visually evocative way. The books asleep on the bed have titles like ‘The Smug General’, ‘The Rise and fall of the Great Powers’, or ‘The History of Malaysia’. The poem scrolling on the wall can be read in Indonesian and English. It says ‘In my sleep I entangled the past, at the tip of the pen history is predicted, at the tip of the gun history is deceived, at the end of the fountain history washed away.’

Another exciting piece uses old books from the artist’s personal childhood library. Crammed with nostalgia, Haslin Ismail’s Book Land is an imaginative jungle of landscapes, adventurous people and mysterious territories waiting for a reader to discover them. The artwork appears to be a carved and folded homage to the pleasure of literature. The Malay artist, however, confesses that he hates reading, but is in awe of the power of books to fill the mind with stories and knowledge. By making books more tactile and sculptural, he controls the worry experienced by reticent readers.

Soe Naing, from Myanmar, locked himself in a large glass box, inside which he hung daily sketches. In reference to the censorship that has vetoed so much art in his country, the viewer can barely see the sketches, as the glass is painted black. The artist, from the inside, scratches away at the black paint, from which squinting onlookers try to see the drawings. The piece is called Intermission on Stage, and it does what it says.

The Southeast Asian platform was the largest and richest, not surprisingly since the hosting country is at the heart of the vivacious region. What was surprising was the lack of Vietnamese artists. It would be very difficult to curate a representative show that included every country, and token presences would be detrimental, but one has to wonder why no Vietnamese artist made it to the final selection.

However, Cuc gallery from Hanoi was the first Vietnamese gallery to participate in Art Stage. The booth featured abstracts by Nguyen Trung and Duong Thuy Lieu and figure paintings by Do Hoang Tuong and Ly Tran Quynh Giang.


Another Vietnamese artist, Nguyen The Dung, is represented by Hong Kong based AP gallery.

Mylyn Nguyen is an Australian artist of Vietnamese heritage. She filled the Brenda May gallery booth with environmental concerns, buzzing around in an installation of minute paper bees, some with micro houses on their backs.


Photography had a strong presence across many of the booths in Art Stage. Photographs with manipulated, collaged or threaded interventions are testament of the medium’s evolution in the Fine Art sphere, and amongst art buyers in Asia.

In all, the fair was a successful event for the participants, and a welcome art experience for the general public. It was not packed with striking new discoveries, but it offered sufficient new ideas to keep regular art fair goers on their toes. And the mission to engage a wider audience with thematic tours is something more in the art establishment should consider doing.



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.

Six degrees of connection

A short-lived private exhibition in Saigon opened and closed in little more than 24 hours.  A group of artists living in HCMC, including Bao Nguyen, Bertrand Peret, Nadege David, Olivier Llouquet, Sandrine Llouquet, Thierry Bernard-Gotteland and myself, set up videos, installations, drawings, lightboxes and other art, with no underlying prescription. The happy mixture of ideas was reinforced by a lovely soiree of gourmet food, and music by the bouncingly cheerful DJ Samurai, who told me that his music ‘makes the future better’. Setting up his turntables, the Japanese music-addict perched his rain-wet gear on the tactile artworks I’d placed on a tall shelf. I politely explained this to him as I moved his things off the art object and he burst in giggles. I had to smile, and maybe for an instant wonder at the futility of preserving art objects from life’s events…

These are the artworks I set up:

 ‘Six degrees of Separation (between cultures)’,
Acrylic and pencil drawing, gold leaf and textile collage on Vietnamese driftwood.

Detail of ‘Six degrees of Separation’.

‘Heivyweight Table’,
acrylic and pencil drawing on Vietnamese flotsam.
This was exhibited alongside the matching bench.

installation with batik, cage and photocopy of Vietnamese identity card.

natural lacquer and eggshell on board. See how I made it here.


The art of freedom

Tu Do (pronounced tuyo), Vietnamese for freedom, is the name of the first art gallery in South Vietnam. It opened in the newly named Ho Chi Minh City, some years after the Fall of Saigon. The owners are Son and Ha, an adorable couple in their gentle years, who are still pushing on in their mission to give art a quiet and valuable space in this frenetic city.

Now in his 70s, Son speaks good English and knows a formidable amount about Vietnamese artists. Ha, in running a gallery with her husband, developed an urge to make art of her own. The artists they worked with were able to give her some pointers, but it was her drive that propelled her work. Her first painting of a vase of flowers, in expressionist blues and greys, was completed 20 years ago, at a time when her life companion was imprisoned in a ‘reeducation camp‘.

The extraordinary pair survived life’s blows, and are still together, now celebrating a retrospective of her work in their gallery. In some of Ha’s sweet lacquer paintings, you can see the two of them as young lovers in rolling fields, protected by knobbly trees and the health of fresh air. This one, titled ‘Together’, is my favourite:

 TuDo Gallery sells quality artworks from a selection of established Vietnamese artists. Overall, the topics are safely likeable and non-confrontational, with some little curious pieces, a handful of experimental gems, and the odd rare treasure that is not for sale. I really like that this gallery has not followed the lead of others in HCMC that are greedily overpricing the artworks out of proportion with their artists’ trajectories and international competitiveness.


Art in Vietnam: censorship and traditional lacquer painting

This is how I made my first traditional lacquer painting, titled ‘The F word’.

I started making it at the beginning of August 2011, and found the process fascinating. Since it’s a very simple design, it does not employ many of the old-fashioned conventions (black outlines, contrasting layers, traditional reds, browns, ochres…). It does, however, use traditional egg shell and silver leaf. The resulting surface is uneven, a quality that is meant to show off the richness of layers. In this case, it’s a bit of an anticlimax, since the layers are all silver and blue, and the cracked and blotchy image references a clean and uniform well-known digital logo…

For those who don’t know, Facebook is one of the sites currently (but ineffectively, since most locals use the social network) banned by the Vietnamese government. For a bit more on cultural censorship in Vietnam, read this. I do sense a certain level of complacency about the restrictions, which puzzles me and frustrates me somewhat, but I’m aware that my limited Vietnamese language knowledge prevents me from really digging deep into the national psyche. And I don’t know how much it’s been damaged by a combination of fear and an educational system that does not encourage critical thinking.

The following photos show some of the basic stages of making this lacquer painting:
fensorship1First I traced my design onto the ready-made lacquer board using paper coated with a mix of white pigment and turpentine.


fensorship2The next step is use a human-hair paintbrush to paint the thick black lacquer onto the areas I want to cover with eggshell, which is carefully fitted into place and gently hammered down, so beautiful fine cracks appear.

eggshell2After a day or two of drying – and peculiarly lacquer dries best with high humidity – the eggshell can be carefully trimmed with a knife, to make the lines a little straighter.

fensorship4The eggshell is then wet-sanded, and the little cracks become full of character. This is what the first eggshell layer looks like when dry.

fensorship5A thin coat of the more liquid and transparent lacquer (called ‘cockroach wing brown’) is used to stick on hundreds of pieces of silver leaf. In this case, I used real silver, although cheaper alternatives exist. A gentle touch is all it takes for each leaf to stick to the lacquer. When the whole surface is covered, it is gently brushed to flatten out the silver and make a uniform background. The use of silver and gold leaf is essential to develop luminous colours, as the natural lacquer is not completely transparent, and the black background would suck away all brightness.


fensorship7Once dry, another thin layer of lacquer coats the silver. Here you can see the first stages of the wet-sanding, revealing the eggshell.

fensorship7bA mixture of lacquer and silver poweder coats the eggshell letters, so the black cracks aren’t so intense. Then the first coat of colour is mixed: lacquer and blue pigment are mixed together with a buffalo horn spatula, and painted on with human-hair brushes.

fensorship8A day later, fine sandpaper and water are used to even out the whole surface. In the process, some parts of blue lacquer disappear. This is normal, the layering has only just begun.

fensorship9The dry image has dull, light colours. Wet lacquer is supposed to be more indicative of the final colours than dry lacquer, beacuse the final polishing will bring out the colours and the gloss, much like water does.

fensorship11Blue lacquer is mixed with silver powder and scrubbed onto the whole surface with fingers. A day later another layer of silver leaf is put on. I’ve by now lost count of the various layers of lacquer, but there are at least 3 coats of silver.


A last juicy coat of blue lacquer seals down the silver, and a few patches of white lacquer will help protect the very thin eggshell from being sanded away.

fensorship13The final sanding not only reveals the colours by taking away dense areas of lacquers and letting the silver shine through, it should also aim to get a very smooth, flat surface.

fensorship14The final and most energetic step is to spend at least half an hour polishing the surface. This is done vigorously, with fine cotton muslin, the ball of the hand, or even scrunched up human hair. Over time, the natural lacquer is said to become even shinier and more transparent. It is a hard-wearing substance with beautiful, rich qualities, quite different from those of polyester resin, a nasty chemical substance used as a cheap substitute on much commercial so-called lacquerware.

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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