Cristina NualART

Tag: Craft

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


Art trends at Hong Kong Art Basel 2013

After 5 years of rapid growth the Hong Kong Art Fair this year was rebranded Hong Kong Art Basel. The space is the same, but the price of the entrance ticket has gone up – that’s what branding does. The art fair, a commercial initiative that showcases artwork from Western and Eastern galleries in equal measure, has expanded its reach with additional talks and city-wide events.

Intelligence Squared sparked off ideas with a debate on the value of art. Matthew Collings did a great job as a speaker, and the moderator was excellent, but the best contribution came from the man in the audience who told panelist Amy Capellazzo that her arguments for the market being the best judge of art had ruined, for him, the magic of the wonderful art in the fair!

Hong Kong’s art fair is popular in every sense of the word. Weaving one’s way between $20-a-glass champagne stalls and children’s buggies, some themes seemed to resurface intermittently amongst the 2 floors of world galleries. Here is an illustrated overview:

That thinking machine of ours is probably making a frequent appearance to remind us not to leave all intellectual activity to the automated machines.

HK_tabaimo_cnualartShow Through I by Tabaimo
Lithography, gampi papers, nylon thread on teak frame, 2009.

HK_MarbleBrain_cnualartGisant (the Silk Spun in the Brain) by Jan Fabre
Marble sculpture, 2012.

Roman Standard by Tracey Emin
Patinated bronze and wood, 2007.

In 2008, as all things craft were exploding in popularity, a contemporary tapestry exhibition in England led some of the world’s best known artists back to this technique which had been almost forgotten after the Renaissance. A number of examples of the thread weaving art dotted the Asian art fair.

HK_detail_KikiSmith_tapestry_cnualartDetail of a large tapestry by Kiki Smith.

hk_kimsooja_cnualartDetail of a tapestry by Kimsooja.

HK_mohair_cnualartSelf Portrait as a Coffee Pot III by William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens
Mohair tapestry, 2012. 

Glitter, beading, rhinestones and other bling
Was it the rise of new money, the influence of different cultures on the global catwalk or a defiance of austerity? Whatever the reason, bling has been giving a shine to the art market in the last decade.

HK_RakibShaw_cnualartDetail from The Disambiguation of the Myth of the last Shinobi by Raqib Shaw
Oil, acrylic, enamel, glitter and rhinestones on birch wood, 2011-12.

HK_KengoKito_cnualartCosmic Dust Gold by Kengo Kito
Oil and glitter on canvas, 2013.

HK_FarhadModshiri_cnualartBird Girl by Farhad Moshiri
Glass bead embroidery on canvas, 2013.

HK_CarBonnet_cnualartAn Old Breeze 13-3-2 by Whang Inkie
Car bonnet with pearly rhinestones.

Along with action painting, collage seems to be one of those inexhaustibly inspiring 20th century inventions.

HK_detail_PietroRuffo_cnualartPietro Ruffo’s photographic collage of an islamic patterned globe is captivating because of the 3D effect achieved by using pins to hold each shape in place.

HK_bindis_cnualartMaths by Bharti Kher
Bindis on panel, 2012.

Pictures of Magazine 2: Vase of Flowers after Claude Monet by Vik Muniz
C-print, 2013

Even some sculptures are a collage, such as the shopping trolley full of scrap metal, Wagon (miles and miles), by Ida Ekblad, or the porcelain pieces by Francesca DiMattio below:


Juicy Abstract paintings
Polyester resin (that glass-like chemical substance that Vietnamese tourist shops pass off as ‘lacquer’) or thickly dripped enamel make for a candy-gloss surface.

HK_IvanLam_cnualartI have hated you too much to be grateful of the day (part of a dyptich) by Ivan Lam
House paint, resin and model submarine on canvas, 2013

HK_resin_cnualartPeter Zimmerman pours thick layers of coloured resin over large canvases.

HK_strawberry_cnualartVanilla, Strawberry by Kenjiro Okazaki
Acrylic on canvas, 2000.

HK_Grosse_cnualartKatharina Grosse plays with enamel paint.

HK_metallic_cnualartTiang #2 by Handiwirman Saputra
C-print  and acrylic coating on metallic paper, 2012

But the artwork that made most people smile was not in the exhibition centre, it floated happily in Hong Kong bay: Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck

no images were found

Hidden jewels found in a rubbish tip

Finding things thrills me. Where possible, I keep a lot of my finds, such as flotsam and jetsam, because I see creative potential in them. And I feel a sense of duty to veer these objects onto a different purpose other than accumulating on beaches. Today I took my collection of found objects into a different creative direction. Instead of working on paintings or sculptures, I used flotsam from a Vietnamese beach to make this necklace. The jewel is a rubber cluster with delicate, vein-like patterns made by fishermen’s fires, sand erosion and sea salt and waves.


The last hand-painted sign in Saigon

Sometime in my first year of living in Saigon I came across a key-cutter at work at his small metal cart on a pavement. He’d borrowed wall space from the shop behind him to hang up his sign, a blood red hand-painted sign with a big car key on it. A simple and effective form of advertising one’s services, of the sort that has been common world-wide since the Middle Ages. The key was wonky and the lettering was not centered. But what struck me was the hand-painted metal, with dusty enamel brushstrokes. In Vietnam, hand-painted signs are not even a dying species, they are already extinct. I admired the man’s sign, expressed my admiration to him and went on my way happy to know there were gems hidden amongst the urban visual clutter.

mekongdelta_cnualart_p1260598_sVietnam is very well sign posted. Most shops have the full street address written somewhere on the front. Vietnam also has much outdoor advertising, in the form of billboards straddling the landscape or covering façades, as I discussed in this post. The signs are, 99% of the time, digital products of no aesthetic value.

Naturally, it hasn’t always been like that. Some of the marquees sheltering street coffee shops and restaurants are painted by hand, I take pleasure in noticing. In rural areas like the Mekong Delta, some hand painted road signs (left) and street signs can still be found. Notice below the difference between the fading pink business sign on the left – obviously computer-generated, and the fading and rusting but compellingly attractive blue street sign – skillfully hand painted by an anonymous, and probably long-gone craftsperson.


Sometime later, on holiday in rural Cambodia, I was disappointed to see the rise of digitally printed signs. Some street vendors still had metal boards with paintings of hairdressing services or puncture repair, but the demise of this hand painted tradition is patent, and for me personally, a sad loss which I was beginning to panic about. Local perceptions, I theorise, are that the digital signs are more ‘modern’ and ‘perfect’, and thus something to aspire to. Mechanical reproduction is a sign of luxury in this framework. It takes the economic leap of post-industrial societies to value manual creations.

The sign below is an extreme rarity. I saw it in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. It advertises a hairdressers, and it is simply wonderful. The lettering is shaped in a graffiti style, complete with 3D shading effects, but it is enamel on metal, applied with a paintbrush. Randomly finding hand crafted advertising like this thrills me immensely!

Back in Saigon I came across an old shop that had this sign:

I spent a while enjoying the now completely anachronistic image of an old man in traditional clothes, smoking a pipe. As I was taking some photos of this curious little shop sign, knowing this was one of the very last hand painted signs left in the city, I was approached by the shopkeeper. She invited me into the shop, which sold mainly tea and coffee along with a random selection of household goods. She was perplexed that I was not interested in what the shop sold, and had merely stopped to see the sign. Once this bizarre idea sunk in, she offered to sell me the sign. How much was it? She went to ask her family members upstairs and came back to announce it was $100. I politely declined to pay such a high sum (‘old’ objects are not much valued in Vietnam, and a new sign to replace this one could be made for very little money. Presently, $100 is a monthly minimum wage in Vietnam.). I walked away happy that Saigon’s urban landscape hid the odd remnant of an old sign-painting tradition.

KeyCutter_cnualart_IMG_2136_sOccasionally, I went back to the road where I had seen the key cutter’s sign. It had disappeared, I choked. For months and months, I never saw it again. Then one happy day last week, the key cutter was back where I’d first seen him a year before, with his sign behind him. I don’t think he remembered me. By now my Vietnamese language skills were marginally better than during our first encounter, and I wasn’t risking losing this opportunity. I enquired if the sign was for sale, and he asked how much I’d pay. How much do you want? I replied. He thought about the value of this old piece of metal for a minute, and requested 200,000 dong (about $10). No hesitation on my part, I paid him, put the rusty object under my arm and caused much interest to a local resident who couldn’t understand why I’d pay so much for an old sign. We laughed about me being overcharged, and I skipped home to dust my new treasure a little and hang it on my wall. I feel a little sorry that Saigon has now only one hand-painted shop sign left – that I know of – but the key cutter’s sign has adapted well to its new unpolluted residence and is much loved. I think the sign knows that it will not be dumped in the rubbish when the key cutter retires… And I will occasionally visit the key cutter to say hello.


Joana Vasconcelos: hand crocheting and kinetic sculptures.

95_JoanaVasconcelos_photocnualartI saw Joana Vasconcelos‘ exhibition in Haunch of Venison a couple of weeks ago, and I wasn’t planning to write about it because a) I’m busy with major work, and b) this show deserved to attract lots of media attention. But having just come across a really badly written review of it in Fadart, I am compelled to say something. The easy way to say it is: GO! This is a phenomenal exhibition full of energy, joie de vivre and fun. Not only does it tickle your laugh-glands, it also provokes a good number on ideas surrounding the interaction of art and home decoration, the history of feminist art (Judy Chicago comes to mind), irony (a good post-modern theme to waffle about), cross-disciplinary practices (art vs. craft?), and the replaceability of contemporary art (see the dog-machine).

Best of all, it’s totally kitsch. Tribally kitsch. And it’s impeccably hand-made. Any artwork that oozes skill is usually awe inspiring. Here, the sculptures tattooed in fine crochet will be admired by even those who actually know what a crochet needle looks like.


Made In – Oil without paint

Excited about being in Birmingham on a nice sunny day, I dashed to Ikon gallery first, and dove right in.

Seeing One’s Own Eyes is the current explosive exhibition by MadeIn artists collective. It is FUN! I went through, so absorbed in the objects that I didn’t read any of the blurb beforehand. What did I get excited about? Bombastic wall hangings, shodily made with chopped up kitch fake fur and sequined textiles, all tackily glued and stitched together. The colours are loud and the cartoons show people you will recognise from newspaper headlines. The text is as in-your-face as the imagery. The whole thing works! This is art that is cheap and cheerful, big and bold, and as amusing and meaningful as pop art can get.

There’s an instructive video by gallery director Jonathan Watkins on how he met Xu Zhen, one of the founding artists of MadeIn.

At this point, you can -like I did- realise that it’s all a fiction. These artists have nothing to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East or a country at war. They are Chinese artists using made in China sarcasm to share with art consumers of the world, who are – of course – deeply interested in big issues like blood for oil and war in far-away countries full of invisible terrorist camps…

To give respite from the bomb-blasts on the second floor, the third floor welcomes you with some quiet anihilation, a breathing pile of rubble. Calm is the name of this surprising room of living destruction. You can watch 45 seconds of it:

I was lucky to see MadeIn’s exhibition the day after I visited Contemporary Art Iraq in Manchester’s Cornerhouse. The latter is, clearly, art made in Iraq. The Iraqi artists share their daily stories and creative pursuits without loud protesting of their county’s situation. Not that they ignore it, they just get on with life without making a song and dance about things. Had they done so, they might have come up with some strident, controversial artwork of the sort the tabloids would discuss. But it could pigeonhole them as protest artists, which is not for every artist to be.

Since Documenta 11, in 2002, there is a tendency for much contemporary art to function as documentary,* but living amidst irrational ruination for years, their museums plundered, current Iraqi artists do what artists do: make art, quite simply. MadeIn are taking on the documentary agenda and parading it in fancy-dress. It’s a fun party. But along with a good party, there’s nothing better than a soul-baring conversation – away from the pandemonium.

* See Materialist Feminism for the 21st Century, by Angela Dimitrakaki, in Oxford Art Journal, vol. 30, 2007.


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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