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

From Cristina Nualart

Posted on 17 October 2011

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 one French man and two English men. Gallery purchases of high-end contemporary Vietnamese art are made by foreigners most of the time. Commercially viable native lacquerware and traditional embroidered pictures are being 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 public libraries, if there are any, 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.
3. http://www.vietnam-beauty.com/vietnamese-culture/vietnam-arts-/18-vietnam-arts/159-vietnamese-art.html

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