The Liberty Gazette
May 1, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Our entry and exit to Southeast Asia was through Saigon. The morning before boarding EVA Air’s 777, we had one more thing to do. We had saved something special for last: Sophie’s Art Tour. Our understanding of Vietnam was like a picture-less frame we did not know how to fill. Our guide, Stu Palmer, breathed life into the jig-sawed history of Vietnam through the art made by witnesses to conflict and members of poverty.
Vietnamese art has long been molded by the party in power, whether insiders or outsiders, yet the artists have strived to retain their cultural identity, and sometimes their very lives. You may know Vietnam’s history, but you might not know the art it inspired. Understanding the context, the art is captivating.
Stu had us meet him for coffee at the Gao restaurant, where we’d begin the tour. We joined him at a table the stunning glass-walled room that was once the courtyard of a French colonial style mansion. This was the home of a rubber plantation owner who worked for Michelin during the French Colonial era. Stu pointed behind us to the massive ornate wood door, itself a work of art. Imagine, he said, the proprietor walking through the courtyard right where we sit, going in and out through that door. He did! And this is where we began a comprehensive introduction.
On his iPad, Stu introduced and summarized the four chapters he would cover on the tour, examining with honesty how Vietnamese artists portrayed life through drastic changes imposed on them.
We would learn pivot points in the intertwined dance of art and history, beginning with written language, followed by visits to the private estate collection of the Duc Mihn Gallery, the amazing Nguyen Thi Hein Gallery, and the edgy Craig Thomas Gallery. The art would cover the periods of colonialism, war, reunification, and the new era. We would see how art was used by the government as a tool to change public perceptions.
One might say that art began with cave drawings. But we would be remiss to ignore the significance of the introduction of the Romanized version of the Vietnamese written language. Vietnamese life was posed for pivot in 1651 when French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes wrote a tri-lingual dictionary in Vietnamese, Latin, and Portuguese. He compiled a catechism, replacing the traditional Vietnamese chữ Nôm script with his new Latin-script alphabet. Chữ Nôm had up to 20,000 characters and was very difficult to learn. Rules of pronunciation were inconsistent, and the rules for writing were arbitrary. When the French arrived they supported the easier script to make reading more accessible to the masses. Around 1900, de Rhodes’ new script was refined as chữ quốc ngữ, which is used today.
With more literate people came a new educated, intellectual class. This wider ability to read and share ideas marks the point of departure from traditional Confucian belief to developing more modern thought, formulating and feeding politics and art.
So there we began in the restaurant Gao as Stu explained the importance of literacy in developing art and culture.
Nam Son was a young artist who helped Frenchman Victor Tardieu lobby the French government to support the Superior School of Fine Arts in Indochina, modeled after the French schools. Opened in 1925, Tardieu’s influence on Vietnamese art grew and showed the impact of colonialism on the culture. Moving away from their folk art, the Vietnamese began employing French art theory and techniques: perspective, Impressionism, oil paints. Thanks to Stu, their world opened to us and we could imagine living in a time when emotion was discouraged, and therefore unfamiliar, and suddenly being introduced to a whole new life. How their art changed when they could paint what they wanted!
We toured the private collection of these students’ Impressionistic work owned by Mr. Duc Minh. He began collecting their work to support them, his heirs now owning a substantial gallery full of work from To Ngoc Van, Hoang Lap Ngon, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Bui Xuan Phai and others.
However, Vietnam wanted independence. For Chapter Two, Stu acquainted us with the outcome of war for independence from France, and then what they call “the American War.” Together, these Indochina wars produced great tumult, out of which came propaganda and combat art – deceptive depictions of agrarian bliss created because the reality of hungry Vietnamese or emotional expression was not allowed. Artists were sent to the front lines to portray strong heroes for the people back home. They even held gallery showings for the troops, hanging their drawings by clothespins along wire stretched from tree to tree. Sometimes their art was used to identify bodies. Propaganda art showed support of Russia and China, both with strong power to influence.
How would you represent life if you were under so much stress? Imagine the risks they faced: losing their sense of identity, their very existence as a culture, and the fear that the powers allow little to define who you are.
During the war against the spread of communism in Vietnam a young artist named Nguyen Thi Hien began to make a name for herself. In Hanoi she painted portraits of officers, and the elite, ambassadors and counselors of foreign embassies. She also painted what she saw as the beauty of her countryside, and the life she knew in North Vietnam.
Now in Saigon, her world-famous gallery appears as an unsuspecting small shop on “Antique Street”. It looks like all the other shops on the street, open at the front, the dirt of Saigon air doesn’t know to stay away from her storefront. Our eyes adjust from the bright sunny outdoors to the darker interior of the old building crammed between other old buildings. Stu points to paintings on the walls and tells her story. The daughter of a writer and musician, she’s energetic and sometimes she could get herself in trouble, which we’ll understand shortly. No one has come to claim the painting up high on the right. It’s a portrait of a Russian officer. He would have paid her up front for her work. She’s kept it for him all these years. All the others picked up their portraits, many wanting to be closer to her than the artist-client relationship. Surely her husband appreciated her turning down the abundant marriage proposals.
We walk past the antiques on tables, toward the stairs in the back. Upstairs we are privileged to enter the gallery of one of the most highly regarded living artists in the country. She was the first Vietnamese artist to exhibit in Spain, and people came from all over the globe for her show. When they asked the prices of the 50 paintings she’d brought, she had to admit she hadn’t thought about that. Eventually, she came up with prices, and sold pieces for as much as $150,000. The organizers begged her to stay on another month in Spain and to make her exhibition an annual affair.
Stu showed us one of her “controversial” paintings. A thin mother is looking down at the infant on her lap. She isn’t smiling, and appears to not have food for the baby who is clutching at her breast. This portrayal of Vietnamese life was unacceptable to the government. But the paintings of Hien’s youth reflect the beauty she knew, the sorrow she saw, and the hunger she felt. Sometimes, her only canvas was a board pulled from the bottom of a desk drawer. She often painted on both sides – why waste an entire canvas when material is so hard to come by?
Ms. Hien isn’t there when we visit, but her daughter who runs the gallery sits quietly at her desk and smiles warmly for her guests. Nguyen Thi Hien’s work spans three of the four periods on the tour: wartime, reunification, and post-1986.
Chapter Three covered a brief period – 1975 to 1986 – in a study of the communist win they call the “reunification of the country” sunk deep in us. The TET Offensive, planned in Saigon a Viet Cong supporter’s Pho Binh noodle shop in 1968, changed the course of the war. Many Americans and South Vietnamese were killed. Art was destroyed because it was a threat of evidence that could be used for retribution later.
By 1975 Saigon had fallen. Communism would rule with an iron fist. Artists were to be monitored, disciplined if necessary, because art is powerful, and universal. Art speaks and motivates. It communicates, which is something communists worry about, especially those who lust after greater thought control. So freedom of expression was again censored.
Chapter Four begins in 1986 with its crumbling economy forcing Vietnam to open its doors to the world.
In present Saigon, although we know the rulers impose communist ideals (foreign teachers are forbidden to teach art theory or critique in Vietnamese government schools), we see it juxtaposed with consumerism, entrepreneurism, with people working and creating.
Representative of this period, the Craig Thomas Gallery courageously exhibits pieces that surprised us, some depicting communism as the free world does. Thomas focuses on new, emerging artists. His desire is to promote art and young artists in a country that still does not applaud freedom of expression.
In fact, Vietnam’s Ministry of Leisure and Culture will decide if an exhibition is approved for public display, so private showings are not uncommon. In an exhibition at Sàn Art, an independent contemporary art organization, video documentation questioning ideas of psychology and treatments of associated illnesses was censored, shut down just before the show. Patrons arrived to an unplugged TV.
In today’s bewildering free market the same communist party still rules, yet the people seem so much like us.
Vietnam’s history is complicated. Stu seeks to untangle it. Employing Sophie’s Art Tour philosophy, as though he was showing us his vineyard, Stu planted artists’ personal stories within the larger field of history. He brought us to the places where we could almost touch life as it was through the hearts and hands of artisans, a painting for our frame.