Why does Vietnam not do well in the visual arts? (part 1)

From Cristina Nualart

Posted on 5 October 2011


It was disheartening to see the exhibition, closing today, at the Applied Arts Museum of HCMC. The venue is linked to the Fine Art University and has occasional shows of random quality. It’s wonderful to have a space where sometimes students exhibit, and sometimes established artists, but for this reason there is little consistency in what is on show. Many of the artists who exhibit there are lecturers, as is the case currently. Pham Cong Hoang and Nguyen Quang Hoang teach in the Dongnai College Decorative of Arts [sic].

I find it had to articulate why I think this exhibition is so bad, whilst trying to ask the right questions about what I am seeing. On the one had the images in these mixed media works seem bland and parochial, and on the other, the techniques, of mixed quality, do not wow us with awe of craft. But I cling onto sparks that interest me, and try to find some factor that I haven’t understood that will exonerate these works from being a symbol of what art education in Vietnam might be right now. It pains me to think of what this exhibition says about the learning that many college students are getting here.

Whilst I believe that all artworks can be enjoyed on their own merit (and personal taste is moulded by many factors), it is an understanding of the context of works of art that often makes them so much more interesting or captivating. During the second half of the 20th century in Vietnam, the war and the Communist era prevented the general population from being in touch with global artistic developments.  Local art production was also hindered. Whilst a handful of forward-thinking and brave artists continued to push the boundaries of their own art, some even embracing abstract art, many enjoyed a career of producing ‘safe’ work that would not make their own lives too difficult – an understandable choice. It is what is happening since ‘Doi Moi‘, the opening up of the country in 1986, that brings up many questions, especially in light of the global interest in Asian art, particularly the burgeoning development of the Chinese art market. In subsequent posts I will explore my personal impressions on these issues a little further.

Now to get back to this disappointing exhibition. These are some of the artworks that have troubled me recently:


Painting by Nguyen Quang Hoang, and detail.


Mixed media work with hammered metal by Pham Cong Hoang.


Detail. Notice the silicone adhesive sticking out.

Through the holes in the metal, $100 dollar bills are mixed in with ‘joss paper‘ or ‘ghost money’, cheaply printed symbols of wealth used for burning as a religious offerings. I suspect some interesting idea might underlie this work, but I feel I’m clutching at straws. In a few of his works, I see, or hope to see, twinkles of Picasso’s strong lines, and Odilon Redon’s surreal eyes, but overall, I don’t like any of it.

Dat Thieng II
 by Nguyen Quang Hoang. When looking at these paintings close up, some have folk illustrations and joss paper stuck on the canvas and muffled by paint. I’m curious, but can’t get past the fact that the overall compositions and painting technique are dull.


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