Cong Kim Hoa – The colors between the lines

Cong Kim Hoa’s revisiting of the language of expressionism juxtaposed with the disquieting potential of surprise draws together threads from a wealth of traditions. It is her superlative artistic sense that represents an important strength of her Vietnamese heritage. Hoa’s unique artistic manner, studded with icons of identity and place, is instantly recognizable. But while her work has captured acclaim and the popular imagination, it also sits uneasily with the stereotypical notions of Vietnamese women’s artistic vocabulary.

However, it is perhaps the apparent simplicity of her images that holds the key to their effect. The source material, which is often drawn from her own past and childhood experiences, carries with it to the final work a certain uncomplicated quality that becomes delicately polluted shapes and colours, often suggestive of a blend of the familiar and the alien.

To understand why Cong Kim Hoa stands out as an artist with a very particular vision is to know her personal life history and her intimate connection to Hanoi. She was born there in 1962 to comfortably middle class parents whose social status played a significant role in shaping their life experiences. Despite her parents’ progressive views, their ambition for their children was modeled on the economic, social and familial relationships of their class and certainly did not encourage the potential of art as a professional career. Her father, Cong Ton Toan, managed the family-owned Phu Gia Hotel and Restaurant, which he had inherited from his father. Although the family name ‘Cong’ has its roots within Cham history, her grandfather assumed the name ‘Phu Gia’ in honour of his ancestral village, which nestles on the banks of the Red River some ten kilometres from Hanoi.

Phu Gia was a dynamic businessman whose iconic reputation as an hotelier was renowned in Indochina from as early as the 1930s, a time of tremendous social and economic change due to the influences of French colonial rule. The family’s 2,000 square metre Phu Gia Hotel, located in the heart of Hanoi’s French colonial quarter on Rue Jules Ferry (now Hang Trong Street), was a landmark of elegant hospitality with panoramic views across Hoan Kiem Lake. The Phu Gia Hotel was also home to the Cong family until 1962, until they moved to their family home on Ly Quoc Su Street, where Cong Kim Hoa and her artist husband Trinh Tuan continue to have their studio.

The youngest of five children of Cong Ton Toan and Dinh Thi Lieu, Hoa’s early childhood was comfortable and laced with the traditions typical of a well-accomplished Hanoi family. Shrouded with culture and grace, the family ideals espoused sound values based on high morals and understated elegance, the comfort of which was shattered in 1965 when the American forces occupying South Vietnam started bombing Hanoi. Like many of Hanoi’s citizens, the family evacuated the city and moved back to Phu Gia Village, renowned for its floriculture and the making of xoi, the popular Hanoi breakfast delicacy. Phu Gia Village nostalgically provided the family a safe haven from the horrors of the war for four years.

The face of Hanoi bore a different expression when the family returned to the city in 1969 after the Americans halted the onslaught on the city. The episodes of war that had unfolded on Hanoi depleted its once splendid social landscape. Ruins of the French-designed manmade structures were all that remained to remind its citizens of a bygone history. Despite the continuing hardship that prevailed, the capacity of Hanoi citizens for social nourishment endured, allowing life to continue. Basic amenities such as electricity and food became scarce, reminding the people of a past that was now significantly gone.

When the Americans launched another offensive on Hanoi in 1972, Hoa — along with many other children – was once again evacuated from the city to the countryside. This time she was sent to live with her sister Cong Kim Diep, the eldest of the five siblings, who worked as a hospital nurse in Quang Ninh Province, located about two hundred kilometres from Hanoi.

The village of Quang Yen in Quang Ninh Province, where they lived amongst farmers and peasants, was typical of rural Vietnam at the time. Despite the enduring poverty that robbed them of material comfort and most often compelled them to survive on a meager diet of rice mixed with flour, hardly ever supplemented by anything else, they were surprisingly content. Part of the true history of Vietnam was its natural history – the serene and verdant landscape embellished with the cultural values of centuries-old Confucian principles. And thus it was the intrinsic beauty of the countryside and the generosity of the farmers, though poor for much of their lives, that sustained Hoa during her stay in Quang Yen.

In contrast to the legacy of her urban birth, here in Quang Yen, Hoa, a quiet but observant child, was able to achieve an intimacy with the simplicity of nature as she participated in traditional games and daily chores with the children of farmers. Often savouring the untrammeled pastoral settings of bamboo groves, rice fields inhabited by water buffalo and the pristine nature of rivers and ponds, Hoa received an education from the cult of nature, which became her new Eden. It was a setting far different from her earlier years of material comfort, which had fallen victim to the war and its aftermath of extreme poverty. Despite the suffering that she had digested, the spiritual wealth that she mined from her childhood experiences and memories of the landscape around Quang Yen would ultimately provide Hoa with an unending mentor that years later would partly shape her artistic oeuvre.

Hoa returned to Hanoi in 1973 and resumed her primary education, which she had started at the Hoan Kiem School near the Hanoi Cathedral. She studied until 1976 at the Tran Quoc Toan School on Nha Chung Street before she went on to complete her secondary education in 1978 at the Tran Phu School, also in Hanoi’s old quarter. It was an era that spelt new beginnings for the family as for most Vietnamese in general.

With the ultimate reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975 looming on the horizon, the rebuilding of the nation rested on the shoulders of all Vietnamese. Once again, it was a time of tremendous social, economic and industrial change. Families who were once characterized by their conservative upper class pedigree could only reflect back nostalgically and start rebuilding their lives with a new dignity and vigour. Despite the continuing hardship that defined the youth of the Cong siblings, their mother Dinh Thi Lieu was able to resume working at the Phu Gia Hotel as a chef while their father Cong Ton Toan retired from his position at the hotel.

In 1973, Cong Quoc Ha (b.1955), Hoa’s older brother, was preparing to attend the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts, where he would ultimately graduate from the College’s Lacquer Department in 1979. Through her close relationship with her brother, Hoa started to develop an interest in art. It was a subject that had held little interest for her during her childhood, which was typically shaped by the four virtues – cong (proper employment), dung (demeanor), ngon (refined speech) and hanh (correct behaviour that defined an oriental woman). Hoa joined the children’s painting class at the Hang Buom Street Art School for the Masses in 1975 even though she had no ambition to study art and become an artist.

After completing her secondary education in 1978, Hoa applied to study architecture at the Hanoi Architecture College. However, she failed the entry exam. Once again, it was through her camaraderie with her brother Ha that she found direction. He suggested that she consider studying an artistic discipline instead. In 1978, Hoa enrolled to study painting under the tutorship of the renowned artist, Pham Viet Song (1917 – 2005), the founder of the Hang Buom Street Art School for the Masses, at his studio ‘Aged Song’s School,’ where many of Vietnam’s most famous present-generation artists were nurtured.

In 1979, Cong Kim Hoa enrolled in the Faculty of Traditional Fine Arts at the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts, where she majored in Ceramic Design. The Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts was established in 1962 although its origins can be traced back to the National Elementary Crafts School, established in 1949 to train Vietnamese in the traditional crafts. After the declaration of independence in 1954, its name changed several times: from the Middle School of Fine Arts in 1959 to the Middle School of Industrial Fine Arts in 1962, to the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts in 1965, and finally in 1984 to the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts. However, many Vietnamese often still refer to the institution as the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts. Among its founding members was the noted artist Nguyen Khang (1911-1984), who also served as the college’s principal between 1962 and 1974. The curriculum of the college was designed to develop the industrial arts and to train young Vietnamese primarily as designers for various industries. Hoa had originally planned to study lacquer painting and not ceramics. However, it was the policy of the college at the time to stream students into courses appropriate for the requirements of industry as opposed to individual career choice.

Hoa graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1985. It was also while a student at the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts in 1979 that she met Trinh Tuan, a student in the Industrial Design Faculty, whom she married in 1988.

In 1986, when doi moi was introduced, it not only activated Vietnam’s internal economy with its open door policies positively filtered into the nation’s social and cultural realm. It would dramatically reshape the character of art throughout Vietnam. Doi moi importantly presented Vietnam’s art academy with an opportunity to explore the rich opportunity of twentieth century art. It was also in 1986, after her graduation, that Hoa commenced work teaching ceramic painting to ceramic artisans in Ninh Binh Province, the area outside Hanoi renowned for its pottery tradition that dates back to the fifteenth century.

While working at Ninh Binh for seven months, Hoa never abandoned her desire to become a ceramic designer and regularly participated in training courses at the famed Bat Trang Ceramic Village. Here at Bat Trang, where she was tutored in the traditional classical principles that were manifested through the technical expression of harmony in the order of colour and form by the village’s grand masters, her communion with one of Vietnam’s ancient cultural artistic traditions was renewed. Having found new ways to symbolize her ideas, she continued to explore the range of possibilities that might eventually forge her own identity.

This desire to create and the newfound awareness of the social awakening that resulted from doi moi shaped Hoa’s future approach to her career. Over the course of the next twenty years, based primarily in Hanoi, Cong Kim Hoa would use her art to consistently reveal a sense of her own past and to explore her life. This art would celebrate the joyful union of her role within the enduring spirit of the community of people that had touched her life, underlined by moments of quiet beauty found in the physical environment of her world.

In 1987, Hoa participated in her first group exhibition with a display of ‘torn paper paintings.’ Rather than presenting her work in the context of the more established artists of the day, the exhibition placed her talent in a limited context and emphasised her developing visual vocabulary. In any event, this was an ambitious endeavour that signaled a fresh development in her career. In 1988, Hoa started to reconstruct her career when she conducted children’s art classes at the Viet-Xo Friendship Palace in Hanoi – an activity that she continues till this day and that generated further interest in developing intellectual material that would ultimately be helpful in her painting career.

This productive phase in Hoa’s life was made even more gratifying by her marriage to Trinh Tuan in 1988, the birth of their son Trinh Nhat Vu in 1990 and, later in 2000, the birth of their daughter, Trinh Nhat Anh. Married life did not impede Hoa’s momentum as an artist. Instead, she shared a genuine congeniality with Trinh Tuan as well as with her brother Cong Quoc Ha, both of whom were rapidly being recognized as amongst Hanoi’s most promising new-generation lacquer painters.

Still working with a variety of media, including paper tearing, Hoa had yet to settle on her own distinctive media and social subject matter. These formative years would, however, shape her future practice on a variety of levels. Like many aspiring Vietnamese artists of the day, Hoa decided to independently study the traditional art of lacquer painting. In 1993, she started tutoring under the instruction of Dang Ngoc Bach (b. 1937), a contemporary of Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Bui Xuan Phai and recognized as one of Hanoi’s most important lacquer masters, a man who had nurtured the careers of some of Hanoi’s most noted artists. Within a year, Hoa was able to master the techniques and the necessary academic skills of lacquer painting. Since Hoa would later distinguish herself primarily as a lacquer painter, this year of tuition under Dang Ngoc Bach would constitute her most crucial period of development as an artist.

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