From postwar Vietnam to the country’s economic boom, Tu Do Gallery has been running successfully for a quarter of a century in Ho Chi Minh City.
Over a decade after the unification of Vietnam, the regime’s Doi Moi reforms allowed private enterprises to be formed. One of the first of these enterprises was Tu Do art gallery. 25 years later, it continues to operate from its base in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
Art Radar asked the owner Mr Dang Son, who is now 78, the same question that many of his friends had asked him when he started out: how could an art gallery survive in a country with so many pressing needs? “Luckily” [sic], he smiled.
In the late 1980s, husband and wife duo Son and Ha reunited after Son’s return from a re-education camp. The couple lived in a house on the centrally located Dong Khoi street (formerly Tu Do, meaning freedom), which they renovated into a shop. When Nguyen Tuan Khanh, the artist better known as Rung, suggested that he exhibit his paintings in their house, the would-be shop became the first private gallery in South Vietnam.
At that time, there was no artistic activity in the city, as the gallery owner explained, because there were virtually no public or private art spaces in fresh-faced Vietnam. Son spoke fondly of the work of the Young Artists Association, formed in the 1950s, and of the Alliance Française in Saigon. The Tu Do founder also recalled an art show organised at the Continental Hotel, built in 1880, by its then Italian manager. In 1987, renovation was also begun on the building that would become the HCMC Fine Arts Museum, but the institution was not inaugurated until 1991 – the year when abstract art was permitted to be shown at public venues.
Word of mouth quickly spread news of Tu Do gallery’s opening in 1989. Over 500 people – poets, writers, journalists and artists – attended the gallery’s inaugural exhibition of Rung’s paintings on 24 June. The event included a performance: the artist, also a poet, recited poetry for a few minutes, in darkness. Then the lights came on again, signalling that the dark times had gone, and the outlook for former Saigon was bright and luminous.
Before the exhibition closed, over half the paintings had been sold. In those early days, one painting would sell for about USD40, a fortune in that economic climate.
Since 1989, Tu Do gallery has organised over one hundred art exhibitions, and it has branched out to the United States, where it operated a space in Houston from 2003 to 2008. The founders often travel to the United States and are still active in promoting Vietnamese art online. Through working with artists, co-founder Tran Thi Thu Ha also took to painting and has had a parallel career as an artist as well as a gallerist.
Represented artists: Mapping Vietnam’s contemporary art
The gallery has dealt in artworks by the most prominent figures in Vietnamese art. Tu Do’s collection includes works by Ta Ty, possibly the most important figure in the history of abstract painting in Vietnam. Also included is work by Nguyen Gia Tri, Vietnam’s master of lacquer painting, graduate of the Indochina Fine Arts School. The gallery owns three panels of a large lacquer painting by Tri. The historical battle scene is interrupted by a missing piece that disappeared in transport during the war – only three of the four cyclos carrying the large wooden panels reached their safe destination.
Another important artist who worked with Tu Do gallery is Nguyen Quan. Well known for his work as an art critic, lecturer and as Editor of My Thuat (Fine Art) magazine, during the 1990s he was the compass for the younger generation of artists. Concerned with tradition but forward-looking, his expressionist paintings veered on the abstract. Quan exhibited at Tu Do gallery in 1990, and the following year at one of the most important international exhibitions of Vietnamese art, “Uncorked Soul” at Plum Blossoms Gallery in Hong Kong.
Nguyen Hai Chi, who signed his works Choe, is one of the gallery’s favourite artists, according to Ha. The well-known cartoonist, whose illustrations were published in the United States back in the 1970s, began his career as a fine artist with an exhibition of his bold oil paintings in Tu Do Gallery in 1989.
A troubled legacy
In the year 2000, the gallery moved to 53 Ho Tung Mau, its present location. For Son, the most memorable exhibition in this new space featured the paintings of popular songwriter Trinh Cong Son. The anti-war singer attracted much public interest from young and old all over Vietnam. All the musician’s artworks were sold: some to bankers, some to wealthy teenagers.
As Son trekked through his memories of past exhibitions, he matter-of-factly mentioned the troubles encountered by many of the artists that he worked with: how many years each artist spent in a re-education camp, or who was sent to the infamous Con Dao prison. Anecdotes popped up that were, as often as not, related to the Paris Peace Accord or the Viet Cong as they were to art. And yet the gallerist is forward-looking.
25 years and new generations
For its 25th year anniversary, however, Tu Do gallery did not take its pick from established artists of historical importance. Son and Ha selected six artists from Central Vietnam, all under thirty, for an exhibition titled “Laotian Wind“. One of these young artists is Truong The Linh, winner of the 2013 Dogma prize, Vietnam’s only privately funded art prize.
Son is already preparing another exhibition of young artists for 2015, this time from Saigon. He will only stop when he is too old. He said:
I am very happy that I came to do this work and that I have continued to do it for such a long time. I still love this work.
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