This article was published in Word Vietnam magazine, July 2014, pp.88-90.
Half of the Vietnamese alive today weren’t born when all this started
For most of the 20th century, no country outside of Vietnam (and a few in the Eastern Bloc) ever saw contemporary Vietnamese art. Despite a rich 70 year tradition of painting, much art was under wraps even in Vietnam, where mistrust and censorship kept things lying low for decades. In Hanoi, art ‘collectors’ were friends of the artists, who mainly bought the artworks to help the painters survive. That changed in 1991, when a Hong Kong art gallery, Plum Blossoms, presented Uncorked Soul, a group exhibition of Vietnamese artists. ‘The exhibition had a startling effect, if not an immediate one’, says Nora Taylor, art historian at the Chicago School of Art, ‘it took a few years for galleries and museums elsewhere to notice Vietnamese contemporary art.’ But foreign collectors jumped at the opportunity.
In the early 90s, Hong Kong’s yuppies travelled to Hanoi for exotic weekends away. For investment and pleasure, they would buy ten or twelve Vietnamese paintings at a time, recalls Suzanne Lecht, an art consultant. Suzanne’s life was transformed by Vietnamese art. Graduates from the Hanoi Fine Arts University were the first generation that, from the early 1980s, could choose to paint something other than propaganda art. When Suzanne encountered the art of ‘the Gang of 5’, as five of the graduates called themselves, she was inspired to make their art her mission. With no time to waste, Suzanne moved from Japan to Hanoi in 1993, the same year that Vietnamese art was exhibited internationally for the second time, in Holland.
Plum Blossoms are not just for Tet
Plum Blossoms was the first foreign gallery to introduce Vietnamese painters abroad. Over ten artists from the north, centre and south were chosen for Uncorked Soul. Many of the artists had worked with the first government owned art gallery in Hanoi, founded in 1965. At that point, not one was known outside Vietnam. In 1991, the Vietnamese authorities had just lifted the ban on abstract art. At the Plum Blossoms exhibition, abstract paintings shone radiantly in their newfound freedom. Figurative works had transitioned from Socialist Realist iconography into more expressive images. New artistic forces were born. Instrumental to the Uncorked Soul show was the hardback catalogue. It wasn’t just a book to be judged by its stylish cover. Today one might say it was an effective marketing tool. But the text, by writer Jeffrey Hantover, enlightened the outside world on how modern Vietnamese painting – that obscure and exciting art – had evolved. Interviews with the artists and some historical background helped art lovers see the importance of what these artists were looking at. It probably contributed to more than one investment in art, and at high returns, no doubt.
Mekong Delta artist Nguyen Trung, now in his seventies, was one of the artists whose work first made it to Hong Kong. In his youth, wanting to see French art at its best, Nguyen Trung had tried to escape to Paris in the 1960s. His plan failed the first time, but the painter did get to Paris 30 years later. Many of the paintings he made in his year Paris in 1990 were exhibited in Uncorked Soul. In Hong Kong, Trung also had the opportunity to discover powerful artworks by Chinese artists, and this made an impression on his eager soul.
Other Vietnamese artists were also excited to visit what was then a British territory. In 1997, Suzanne Lecht organised another exhibition in Hong Kong, The Changing Face of Hanoi, taking all five exhibiting artists with her. For most of them, it was their first trip outside of Vietnam. This show was smaller in scale and scope than the exhibition at Plum Blossoms gallery a few years earlier, but it kept Vietnamese art from slipping back into invisibility during the transformative Doi Moi decade.
Hong Kong makes Hanoi look up and Hanoi makes Hong Kong look around
Vietnam transformed in all directions. A Hong Kong company in 1995 had built the first high rise in Hanoi, the Central Building (31 Hai Ba Trung). Suzanne had assisted the developer, a supporter of Vietnamese art, to procure two large bronze statues by sculptor Le Cong Thanh for the building’s entrance. Hong Kong investors gave Hanoi something to look up to.
Whilst the Uncorked Soul exhibition was a phenomenal promotion for Vietnamese art, international fairs are the best publicity. The people milling about at art fairs, dealers, collectors, museum curators and general art lovers are the first ones to notice changes and new developments in the art world. The first Vietnamese gallery to participate in an international art fair was Galerie Quynh. From 2010 to 2012, Quynh had a yearly booth at Art Hong Kong, the original Hong Kong art fair. ‘In those 3 years we saw very few Vietnamese visitors’, laments Quynh. But she did sell to a small number of Vietnamese from the diaspora, and, of course, to foreigners. Now in their tenth year of operation, the gallery is working hard in Vietnam to build trust with affluent locals, who are increasingly keen to learn about art.
Lightning in U Minh Forest by Hoang Duong Cam. Galerie Quynh, Hong Kong Art Fair 2011.
VN art in the noughties
From the nineties to the noughties Vietnam got richer. Not evenly or consistently, but abundantly enough to energise the country with buying buzz. Expensive handbags, however, are higher up the Vietnamese shopping list than paintings, comments Shyevin, owner of Vin Gallery in HCMC.
Like most other gallerists, Shyevin, although based in Vietnam, knows that sales will often be better elsewhere. She has done art fairs in Korea, Singapore and, of course, Hong Kong. Hers was the only Vietnamese art gallery in the luxury Hong Kong hotel that hosted the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in May this year. Vin Gallery received visits from a few Vietnamese who live in Hong Kong. ‘They were very happy to see our gallery there, and came to say hello,’ Shyevin is pleased to say. But they don’t buy, she notes, ‘they think is cheaper back home’. Foreign visitors were curious about Vietnamese art, surprised to actually see some. Lots of questions were asked, especially about lacquer painting. Sales were made, with Hanoi landscapes making it to the bestseller list omeprazole dosage. Vin Gallery had competition at the fair. A number of Hong Kong galleries who deal in Vietnamese art were also exhibiting at Asia Contemporary.
Another Saigon-based professional, Craig Thomas, knows this. The Craig Thomas gallery, which shows Vietnamese art exclusively, participated in the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong this year, and will be returning next year. The well-organised fair, he said, attracted a large number of buyers from China.
Decades after the Plum Blossoms success, artist Nguyen Trung’s work is still shipped to Hong Kong. His latest abstract canvases and new sculptures were admired merely weeks ago, in Art Basel. Cuc Gallery from Hanoi was the only Vietnamese gallery to participate in one of 2014’s most prestigious art fairs worldwide. Asian collectors, savvy about the cultural and historical value of Trung’s work, took out their credit cards.
Cuc at her booth, surrounded by Nguyen Trung’s artworks in Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.
Evidently, art collectors are interested in Vietnamese art. But all the gallerists mentioned here agree on one thing, that the collectors of Vietnamese art are rarely Vietnamese.‘Hong Kong is the biggest banking centre in the world. It’s a good market’, says Suzanne Lecht, ‘Vietnam is a small market’. She compares the situation to Japan in the 1980s. Rich Japanese would only buy artworks by Mattisse or other famous names because the worth would be known. ‘It’s the same in Vietnam now’, she says. Like Shyevin, she sees that the shopping priorities of wealthy Vietnamese are geared towards status symbols. The solution to keeping the best Vietnamese art in Vietnam, then, must be to brand Vietnamese art as an object of desire on a global scale.
San Art curator Zoe Butt and The Propeller Group talking at Hong Kong Art Basel 2014.
Text and photos (2011-2014) by Cristina Nualart