Shortlist: Vietnam

Nora Taylor, Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art, Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
May 2011


Asia Art Archive currently holds over 700 items pertaining to Vietnamese art. This number is expected to grow substantially over the next decade as Vietnamese artists begin to emerge onto the global contemporary art scene in greater numbers. Unlike China, Vietnam’s art history has been far less documented. The history of Vietnamese contemporary art, one could argue, begins in 1986 with the onset of economic reforms known as Doi Moi, or ‘open door’. After the country gained independence from France in 1945 and decades of struggle with war and economic poverty, along with dwindling support from the Soviet Union, the communist party-led government opted to open its economy to reform. Economic reform also led to more liberal policies regarding the arts. If contemporary art began in 1986, one could consider the date of the onset of modern art to be 1925 with the founding of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine by the French colonial administration. The history of Vietnamese art from that point onwards has followed the country’s political changes and artists have been classified by generation by both Vietnamese and international art historians from the colonial period through the war period and up to the present. This history is usually presented as a unified national trajectory with no distinction made between North and South Vietnams, a division that existed between 1954, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, and 1975, when the Hanoi government took over Saigon. Therefore, artists who practiced in the South between 1954 and 1975, have often been obscured from official art history. Some were not officially recognised until the 1990s. It is useful, therefore, to apply the term ‘Vietnamese’ to artists broadly. These identifications are complicated further by the fact that an increasing number of second generation overseas Vietnamese artists have returned to Vietnam to live and work and are partaking in international exhibitions, biennales, and triennials in greater numbers than those who never left the country, often prompting jealousy and resentment.

Documents pertaining to ‘official’ Vietnamese art history are still difficult to attain. Since the advent of economic reforms, records of national art exhibitions held by the Association of Fine Arts or artists’ union or material pertaining to the three art schools in the country, in Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi, have been difficult to locate. They have either been shelved away in the archives of the Artist’s Association or destroyed, but memories of those decades still live in the minds of living artists. In the pre-Doi Moi period, until the late 1980s, artists were expected to follow guidelines set by the ministry of culture for the creation and exhibition of nationalist socialist art. Abstraction and nudity were forbidden until 1991, and artists were closely watched for anti-patriotic sentiments. Commercial art galleries did not exist until the opening of the economy. Until Doi Moi, artists rarely sold their works to anyone other than tourists or foreign diplomats. They exhibited their work under the auspices of government cultural organisations and spaces. Aside from these, a few independent art spaces were also managed out of private residences. The most prominent of which, Salon Natasha, opened shortly before the onset of Doi Moi and continued to operate until 2004. AAA is currently creating an archive that documents Salon Natasha’s activities. Together with his wife, Russian born Natalia Kraevskaia, the artist Vu Dan Tan (1946-2009) opened his family home and studio to artists. Through its programming, Salon Natasha was at the forefront of experimental art practices. Vu Dan Tan’s legacy is recorded in a few posthumous exhibitions organised by his widow, presented in this context under ‘Vietnam War Artists.’ Other experimental art spaces include the more recently established Nha San Duc, home of Nguyen Manh Duc (b. 1949), co-founder of the space with the artist Tran Luong (b. 1961). A traditional house on stilts or Nha San, the open atmosphere of the place gave rise to performance and installation art in Hanoi. Two other spaces in Ho Chi Minh City, Blue Space and Sán Art, have also contributed to the development of experimental art practices. Blue Space was founded in 1996 and Sán Art in 2007. While Blue Space’s future is currently in question, Sán Art is evolving into a community art center and fostering the growth of an entire generation of artists. Blue Space sponsored experimental art projects, but never had the means to publish catalogues or commission art works. Its impact will also be recorded under a plan to collect material pertaining to its programmes. Currently, these four spaces are the sites to view the work of the most prominent artists working in Vietnam today.

Until more documents held in Vietnam are recovered, the history of contemporary artists can only be understood in terms of the broad categories of the four generations from the colonial period through the war, and Doi Moi up to the present. In time, with the accumulation of material, these categories will change. For now, they are arranged generationally. The artists who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, came to the attention of international art observers after the onset of the Doi Moi period. The first international exhibition of Vietnamese contemporary art outside Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975 took place in 1991 at Plum Blossoms gallery in Hong Kong. Bui Xuan Phai (1922-1988) and Nguyen Tu Nghiem (b. 1922) were the two representatives from the colonial period. They were in the last graduating class of the school that closed in 1945. The influence of Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Tu Nghiem is keenly felt among artists of the 1990s generation. Having defied authorities in refusing to comply with regulations on art, they are remembered as the fathers of modern painting. Even though they grew out of the colonial period, they figure under the section titled ‘Art under Doi Moi.’

The generation of artists trained during the Indochina wars from 1945 to 1975 has not received as much attention from international museums and galleries as the younger artists who came of age after Doi Moi. Although what is known as the Vietnam War in the United States and the American War in Vietnam has generated a great deal of interest among historians and political scientists, only a few exhibitions of war generation artists have taken place outside of Vietnam. These exhibitions are presented in the section marked ‘Vietnam War Artists.’ This section also includes artists born in the 1940s who did not participate in the war nor were active in the national art exhibitions such as Nguyen Trung (b. 1940) and Vu Dan Tan (1946-2009). Both artists can be considered outsiders to the establishment but both have been active as artists.

Much more attention has been paid to the younger generation of artists who grew up after the War. Galleries have presented works by young artists in a number of group exhibitions. These are marked under the section titled ‘Post-Doi Moi Artists.’ This includes artists who have participated in international biennales and triennials. The Asia Pacific Triennial or APT was among the first international exhibition organisations to invite a Vietnamese artist to participate in a group show in 1996 followed by the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in 1999. Vietnamese artists have participated in those projects since the 1990s. A majority of the Vietnamese participants in international and solo museum exhibitions include artists of Vietnamese descent who grew up in the United States, Australia, or Europe, many of whom have returned to Vietnam to live. Since 2000, a number of Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese artists, have settled in Ho Chi Minh City. Some of these artists were born in Vietnam toward the end of the war, and some were born abroad, but all were educated in their host countries and have come to Vietnam for their artistic practice. These young artists have also been experimenting with new media such as video, installation, and performance. Vietnamese artists participate regularly in international performance events and forge ties with other performance artists in the region. The Archive includes a number of interviews of these artists and DVD footage of performance events.

Recommended Readings

General Bibliography

Vermeij, Eef, Bibliography on Contemporary Vietnamese Art, Amsterdam, 2005

Vietnamese Painting from Colonialism to Doi Moi

de Menonville, Corinne, Vietnamese Painting from Tradition to Modernity, ARHIS, Paris, 2003

Art Under Doi Moi

Hantover, Jeffrey, Uncorked Soul: Contemporary Art from Vietnam, Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd., Hong Kong, 1991
Huong, Bui Nhu, Tran Hau Tuan, New Vietnamese Art in the 1990s, Fine Arts Publishing House, Hanoi, 2001
Kraevskaia, Natalia, From Nostalgia Towards Exploration: Essays on Contemporary Art in Vietnam, Kim Dong Publishing House, Hanoi, 2005
Lee, Sarah, Nguyen Nhu Huy, eds., Essays on Modern and Contemporary Vietnamese Art, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2009
Middelborg, Jorn, ed., Art Works by Bui Xuan Phai: In the Collection of Van Duong Thanh, Thavibu Gallery, Bangkok, 2006
Nguyen, Quan, ‘Avenues of Painting in Vietnam,’ in Caroline Turner ed., Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific, University of Queensland Press, Queensland, 1993
Taylor, Nora A., Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, NUS Press, Singapore, 2009
Tomiyama, Eikichi, Masahiro Ushiroshoji, 50 Years of Modern Vietnamese Paintings: 1925–1975, Sankei Shimbun, Tokyo, 2005

Vietnam War Artists

Buchanan, Sherry, et al., Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965–1975, British Museum, London, 2001
Kraevskaia, Natalia, Vu Dan Tan: Tranh In Lito, Salon Natasha, Hanoi, 2009
Nguyen, Trung, Blackboard, Galerie Quynh, Ho Chi Minh City, 2005

Post-Doi Moi Artists

Als, Hilton, Richard B. Woodward, An-My Le: Small Wars, Aperture, New York, 2005
Chiu, Melissa, Vietnam: Destination for the New Millenium: The Art of Dinh Q. Le, Asia Society, New York, 2005
Fan, Joyce, Siuli Tan, Post-Doi Moi: Vietnamese Art After 1990, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2008
Fottorino, Eric, Suzanne Lecht, Nguyen Cam: As Time Goes By, Art Vietnam Gallery, Hanoi, 2007
Le, Viet, Milk: Sandrine Llouquet, Galerie Quynh, Ho Chi Minh City, 2008
Miles, Christopher, Moira Roth, Dinh Q. Le: From Vietnam to Hollywood, Marquand Books, Seattle, 2003
Nazaree, Shiree, Le Quang Ha: Altered Faces, Thavibu Gallery, Bangkok, 2008
Neubauer, Suzanne, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, 2007