Cristina NualART

Tag: Education

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).






Why does Vietnam not do well in the visual arts? (part 2)

Read part 1 here

My personal impression is that Vietnam, a dynamic nation with a wide multicultural heritage, currently shows little innovation in the visual arts. Here I outline the factors that I believe have caused this.

In a country with very high literacy rates, visual literacy seems to lag behind. For example, note the desperate shortage of visuals in the popular realm. Advertising is everywhere, but it often looks like this:


In 300 metres, most signs are block text in primary colours. This is the norm nationwide. Pictures are rarely used, and when they are, more often than not they are used in a very literal and descriptive way, not a creative or aesthetic one. In this respect, things appear to have changed little since the 1960s, as can be seen in this old photo of Saigon’s central market:


The dominance of text, however, has a proud tradition, and Vietnamese literature and poetry have been very significant forms of art for the nation (1). There are two reason why text may have overtaken visuals as a communication device: on one hand, the 1000 year Chinese domination of Vietnam could have fostered a localised literati tradition; on the other hand, apart from outstanding ceramics (15th century), Vietnamese arts and crafts were mostly produced for practical reasons, devoid of patronage or religious impetus to push creativity and prestige.

Artist Hoang Duong Cam comments that no native visual tradition exists (he excludes Dong Ho woodcuts, since he considers them a folk art, rather than a fine art). Cham architecture and sculpture created on present-day Vietnamese soil were in fact products of Khmer culture. Chinese influenced ink painting never proliferated in Vietnam, although calligraphic brush work has been adapted to the quoc ngu script (Roman alphabet adapted to Vietnamese pronunciation) that became widespread in the 20th century.

A French diplomat posted in Cochinchina in the late 1800s blames poor economic models, noting that, in contrast to the Chinese commercial and royal patronage of the arts, skilled Vietnamese artisans were taken in by the royal court and practically reduced to slavery, thus hindering any entrepreneurial craftsmen from honing their talent. With negligible governmental impulse to foster arts and crafts, only in the colonial missions, sheltered from royal monopoly, did local products of mother-of-pearl inlay and niello copperware reach masterful standards (2). Emperor Tu Duc, the last independent Vietnamese monarch, had splendid palaces built and furnished, allegedly financed with forced labour and higher taxes. Yet he was a keen poet and man of letters, developing a circle of writer friends. The Nguyen dynasty which ended with him saw the decline of the arts, with the exception of imperial court dances, music and performing arts (3).

In the 1900s, oil painting came along with the French, and therefore is considered a foreign art form. I find it amusing that nationalism has resulted in some anti-oil painting sentiment. No Western country puts down its oil painting achievements just because the invention and development of oil and pigment technique are not originally their own. In any case, the content of Vietnamese oil paintings responded to the market forces of French settlers, and didn’t change the course of art history.

In the second half of the 20th century war and financial distress continued to take their toll on art production. Propaganda art, inspired by Russian and Chinese communist art, resulted in some passionate creativity, highly articulate in its zeal. Vietnam’s communist closure to the world ended in 1986. Since then, the economic reforms made some people in Vietnam very rich, and generally improved the lot of the majority, although there has been no real democracy. This brings us to present day Vietnam. The clean-cut propaganda art style has continued to be used in government posters, but the new, bland and repetitive digital renditions lack punch and come across as watered-down brainwashing.

To date, any public performance or art exhibition must obtain a license before it is allowed to open. Censors can and do restrict cultural freedom of expression. The current rising economic power of the nation as a whole has not translated into a local art market of any significance. Most of the historically significant artworks made in Vietnam in the 20th Century are in the private collections of a handful of European men. Almost every gallery purchase of high-end contemporary Vietnamese art is made by a foreigner. Commercially viable native lacquerware and traditional embroidered pictures are made with a high degree of craftsmanship, but the subject matter remains formulaic. There is limited impulse, governmental or private, to make art a successful creative industry in the near future.

In his recent solo show at San Art, young artist Trung Công Tùng makes us aware of Vietnamese artist’s lack of exposure to great art. According to the press release, ‘Tung admits he has limited English skills and that access to knowledge resources in Vietnam, such as books on contemporary international culture, are few. His frustration with these restrictions is also laced with anxiety in how this context breeds ignorance and narrow-mindedness in Vietnamese society.’

The mention of English language being a hindrance may sound surprising to those who have come across art publications in hundreds of languages. The reality is that few contemporary art publications exist in Vietnamese. Occasional collaboration projects (e.g. Vietnam-Thailand, Vietnam-Japan…) result in a bilingual compilation that is often poorly translated/edited. Currently no bookshop I have come across in Vietnam stocks a selection of art books or magazines of any ‘wantability’, neither in Vietnamese, nor in English. In a developing economy, art and design books would not be accessible to the majority, who have more pressing purchases to make, but there is obviously no market amongst the local rich, who are reported to buy their luxuries abroad. I cannot comment on the content of public libraries, but I am aware that a permit is required to access at least some publications and historical documents. While the internet is not heavily firewalled, with limited language skills and not really knowing what to search for, how easy is to come across information on international, cutting-edge art?

In summary, Vietnam’s complex history with multiple influences offers a playground on which to cement a visual identity, but economic forces have seen several waves of ‘brain-drain’, and too many wars. The present-day political and social scenario might well hinder the development of world-ranking artists, but not all is lost. There are a few artists driven by passion who are exploring creativity in their art production. Nevertheless, to encourage the growth of a flourishing art scene Vietnam should consider:

  • fostering critical thinking skills in schools and universities
  • reducing the red tape for exhibitions and performances
  • public or private commissions/competitions/grants/sponsorship
  • raising awareness of art as a cultural good/consumer product/investment to develop a local market
  • above all, opening up to international collaborations and increasing exposure to a variety of artworks. Working in a vacuum is not conducive to creativity!


1. Jamieson, Neil (1995), Understanding Vietnam, University of California Press.
2. Barrelon, Corbigny, Lemire & Cahen (1999), Cities of Nineteenth Century Colonial Vietnam, Bangkok: White Lotus Press.

Art: the useless profession for curious people

The artist network, a-n, kindly sent me a kilo of a book on art education to read over the summer and comment on. The review of the book is here.  The word limit for the review meanst that there is no room for some of the nice little sentences about being an artist  that I underlined. Below are quotes by some of the artists who contributed to the book, whose views I subscribe to:

  • ‘Credentials don’t exist in art, it’s the work you’re doing, and how it makes sense at the time you are doing it, or maybe later on. Even that’s not decided… ’ John Armleder
  • ‘We don’t have to call artists “artists” anymore, they can be anything… It’s a slightly politicized thing: are they just like everyone else? Well of course we’re just like everyone else, it’s just that we have this desire to make visible things that usually aren’t visible, and therefore it’s a kind of useless profession.’ Phyllida Barlow
  • ‘Art is a kind of job that no one asks you to do. You become an artist for all sorts of reasons, but when I examined my soul, I think I’ve probably become an artist out of curiosity.’ Pavel Büchler
  • ‘As a culture we don’t spend enough time looking and describing, articulating what we see, because there is so much ambiguity now.’ Graham Crowley
  • ‘What art really does, is it redevelops notions of success. I’m suspicious of commercial success, If people are able to withstand current, dominating notions of traditional success,for me that’s successful.’ Rainer Ganahl


Sculpture + 2D

RachelThorby_photocnualartI came across this bust by Rachel Thorlby in Madder139 gallery, and I was pleasantly intrigued by the Cervantian look of the man, but mostly attracted to the 2D image collaged over the 3D surface.

I used the same technique on this little maquette of a woman that I prepared a few years ago for a workshop on feminist art with underprivileged teenage girls. Cheap, easy and effective, I thought – considering the educational outcome of my task. Seeing Thorlby’s work, I now pause to consider the concept of a flat image on a lumpy object, and I am artistically amused 🙂



Art connaisseurship

There’s a Spanish saying that I really like, deformación profesional, which is used to explain the angle on vision that our career’s impose on all other spheres of our lives. You would often use the expression to excuse a language slip, for example, if you had just used specialist jargon in a laypersons conversation. It highlights the fact that one’s profession is closely link to one’s identity (as questionable as that may be).

A few days ago, whilst waiting around in a corridor of a public building, I overhead a few people making casual conversation. The topic was the large canvas with lots of white cracked paint and some washes of grey and red, with a few other small patches of colour. I tried to blend into the wallpaper to hear this exchange in which one woman dismissed it as completely worthless, whilst another said the splotch of red looked like blood. I smiled when I head the unsurprising retort: ‘they charge thousands for something like that in a museum’ (little does she know that ‘thousands’ is an understatement).

The painting was not a well known one, nor was it by any famous artists, yet still I found it quite beautiful and interesting to look at, and skillful. And that’s when I knew that -although I have a large circle of friends and colleagues who are not ‘into’ art- I still have in my day-to-day life enough intellectual input on art that I have become a ‘deformed professional’, a person who is so imbued in a field that I can no longer see it from the outside. I continued eavesdropping, refreshed and excited at the thought that these laypeople were helping me see this canvas from the ‘why should it be valued at all?’ point of view. It got better. Along came a man who self-assuredly offered his interpretation of the painting, pointing as he said: ‘that is the Icelandic cloud of volcanic ash, there’s a field and there’s a city and there are no aeroplanes in the big white sky’!

The flippant comment not only added to my pondering on art-connaisseurship in the popular realm, but also made me consider art as a medium to portray current affairs. My mate Paul Shinn drew this version of the Iceland volcano. See his blog for other illustrations on current affairs.

51_MetroPop art is not around us like it used to, though. Like millions on London Transport, on Thursday this week I grabbed a copy of Metro magazine to forget that enjoying the journey requires paying attention to it. As I flipped through the daily news, I found this article on art made by a 10 year old boy, pretentiously labelled a ‘young Picasso’, complete with neckscarf and black beret (très chic).

Well, it is Metro and not Art Monthly, but even so, have people generally got such a  poor understanding of art that they confuse these colourful images with Cubism? I’m shocked – especially considering that Cubism is a die-hard topic in GCSE art.

To add insult to injury, some mugs have paid over £600 for some of this boy’s paintings. In art market terms, that’s nothing, but considering that we are actually talking about a child who does vibrant paintings, well, get real. Buy yourself a couple of hand-made prints at the Affordable Art Fair and let this kid be a kid and not a gimmicky money-making trick. Look around at what children do naturally: those that have the privilege of owning paper and finger paints (not those poor slaves of Nintendos and PSPs…) do this kind of stuff all the time. It’s great, but it’s only mums, dads and grandparents who should want to own it.

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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