A look at Vietnam’s art historical context explains the dynamics of its contemporary art.

Vietnam’s blossoming contemporary art scene is held in check through a complex set of bureaucratic hurdles coupled with hit-and-miss government censorship and lack of critical infrastructure funding, at a time when it should be enriching, not sabotaging this shining asset.

Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

The roots of this inertia and entanglement are based in military strife, government propaganda, and deep ideological fissures between the North and South of the nation. Comprehending the shifting political winds occurring over the past century is essential to understand the development and trajectory of Vietnamese contemporary art.

Modern art began in Vietnam through French bourgeoisie training influenced by the work of Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissaro and Renoir. This set up tensions currently playing out when balanced against later Soviet, Chinese and Marxist influences.

Art is still employed by the government for propaganda purposes, as recently as this past year when it was used to protest Chinese encroachment on Vietnamese border and sea rights. Commercial galleries and alternative non-profit spaces would like to encourage reputable government backed institutions to support contemporary art. As in any nation, the quest for this type of legitimacy reflects national pride and heritage.

Vietnam suffers from a lack of knowledgeable homegrown arts administrators, critics and curators. Those who are educated or grew up abroad returned with startlingly different ideas about art, resulting in gridlocked policies with government officials in obtaining permissions to show innovative, thoughtful content.

"Defend the Vietnamese Border and Sea", propaganda poster outside Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, December 2014. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

“Defend the Vietnamese Border and Sea”, propaganda poster outside Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, December 2014. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

French origins

Vietnamese contemporary art is rooted in French modernism. French painter Victor Tardieu, who studied at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Lyon along with Henry Matisse and Georges Rouault, won the Indochina Prize in 1920. He journeyed to Vietnam, befriending the accomplished ink painter Nam Son (Nguyen Van Thoi) and encouraged him to study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Paris.

Upon Nam Son’s return in 1925 to Hanoi, the two artists co-founded The Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine or FACI (Fine Arts College of Indochina), the first official art school of Vietnamese Modernism. Though oil painting was the medium of choice, both Vietnamese silk and lacquer painting were incorporated as part of the fine arts tradition.

Ho Chi Minh instructing young girl, statue outside of Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Ho Chi Minh instructing young girl, statue outside Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

The end of colonialism and the struggle for independence

The Japanese invaded Vietnam in 1940 and installed the Nazi-backed Vichy French government. When the Allies won the war in 1945, they expelled the Japanese and FACI closed it doors. This was the end of the colonial era for Vietnam – and of Vietnamese art.

Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern day Vietnam and a staunch communist, slipped into the power vacuum declaring Vietnamese independence on 2 September 1945. The French insisted that they still owned the country and invaded in 1946, forcing Ho Chi Minh and his provisional government to decamp to the northern forests, thereby launching the nationalistic war of resistance of the Vietnamese communists.

China, the first to support Ho Chi Minh’s struggle, sent propaganda officers north to whip exiled bourgeoisie southern artists into shape through bouts of rigorous, ideological self-criticism. Artists who could not tolerate this approach decamped back south.

France lost the war in 1954 and, at the International Geneva Conference, Vietnam was split in half. The North was awarded to the communist-backed government of Ho Chi Minh, and the South came under Emperor Bao Dai, and later his Prime Minster and successive waves of corrupt politicians. As early as 1959, North Vietnamese artists were sent to the Soviet Union to study Soviet social realist art.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent US troops to staunch the growing ‘Communist menace’ looming up north. Artists were recruited to accompany Viet Cong combat troops in their war of resistance, and propaganda art became the prevailing North Vietnamese style. The war, however, was kept out of Saigon, where French and even American art influences prevailed until 1967, when riots broke out against the Americans in Saigon.

Officially approved art and music for New Years Eve 2015, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Officially approved art and music for New Years Eve 2015, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.


American troops eventually left Vietnam in 1973, and by 1975 the North took control of the entire country. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled by boat, and artists who stayed behind destroyed their works in order to escape political retributions.

In 1978, artists were forced to listen to lectures on Marxism and culture eight hours a day. Their job was to paint ports, railway stations and factories either celebrating the war or the future. The Director of the Fine Arts Centre of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) went so far as to ban life drawing.

The Soviet Union bankrolled Vietnam in a disastrous policy where the country went from being a rice producer to a rice importer. In 1986, Doi Moi – or economic and artistic liberalism – was introduced to counteract the severe economic decline. By the early 1990s, the Soviet Union, which was Vietnam’s biggest economic supporter, had collapsed.

San Art / Propeller Group sign. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

San Art / Propeller Group sign. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Contemporary art and censorship

Vietnamese artists wasted no time in playing catch up with the global dialectic. In 1992, the first outside exhibition of Vietnamese contemporary art, entitled “Uncorked Soul”, was held at Plum Blossoms gallery in Hong Kong. American Suzanne Lecht moved to Hanoi in 1994, mounting the exhibition “The Changing Face of Hanoi” in Hong Kong in 1997, and founding Art Vietnam Gallery in Hanoi in 2002.

Dinh Q Le, Tiffany ChungTuan Andrew Nguyen and Phu Nam Thuc Ha (the latter two, members of The Propeller Group) set up Sàn Art in 2007. Richard Streitmatter-Tran returned from Boston in 2003 to teach art, setting up the non-profit DIA Projects in 2010. Quynh Pham, an exiled Vietnamese curator and art historian, returned to found the commercial Galerie Quynh in 1997, which in May 2014 spun off Sao La, a non-profit initiative tucked inside the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. In the past five years, other initiatives have sprung up, such as the alternative art space Zero Station.

Sao La inside the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Image courtesy Sao La.

Sao La inside the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Image courtesy Sao La.

Visiting Sao La

Art Radar visited Sao La – Vietnamese for “eastern unicorn” – on a day when a revolutionary-inspired martial arts movie was being filmed inside the museum’s courtyard, so it was closed. The programme manager, Tung Mai, is a multimedia designer who studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), an Australia-based school operating in Ho Chi Minh City. His teacher had been Richard Streitmatter-Tran of DIA Projects. That afternoon, the child of one of the museum staff was following Tung around – local children love the space and drop by to draw, paint and paste their work all over the compound.

The gallery opened in May 2014 with the exhibition “Out of Nowhere” featuring photography, installations and paintings by ten emerging Saigon artists. Yet, when Art Radar was there at the end of December, the gallery was empty – which was odd as its mandate is to engage the general public as well as the nascent arts community by mounting at least three shows a year.

Sao La has circumvented the need for proper licenses for its most recent ‘pop up’ shows, the formats of which are increasingly experimental in nature, because obtaining a license is complicated and time consuming. For instance, Tung said that they were supposed to mount an exhibition in December about a poem. The theme was a bit dark, with the poet talking about her slightly melancholic past. There was no reference to politics whatsoever. Four other artists had made an installation and video about the poem. Tung told Art Radar:

We made the mistake of submitting the poem to the museum. They blocked it. The problem should not have happened; it should have gone straight to the Department of Culture. The museum itself censored the work.

DIA Projects Library. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

DIA Projects Library. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Art and bureaucracy

Licenses are needed to display any type of creative work in a government institution or cultural facility in Vietnam. Painting, sculpture, film, performance, installation or photography are all directed to different departments and ministries for approval as part of a two-tiered process. The first tier is the museum itself. Certain media such as video art present a complex situation, as it is not a documentary or film. It must be submitted to three departments: Film, Cultural and Performance, with any of them able to veto its display.

Sao La must submit images of the actual artwork, a CV of the artist, an artist statement and written descriptions of work to authorities. If the museum approves the proposal, it is passed to the Cultural Department, which must find an expert to review it. For example, if the exhibition concerns a film, they send it to the Film Association. If the expert approves the content, Sao La is then issued a license.

"Ke Mong Du, Sleepwalker", pop up performance, January 2015. Image courtesy Sao La.

“Ke Mong Du, Sleepwalker”, pop up performance, January 2015. Image courtesy Sao La.

Shows must be well planned. “If something is not safe, we do not show it,” Tung said. He explained that a few years ago, a dancer had danced in a music video close to war statues. She was clad in ‘suggestive’ clothes. The video was shown on YouTube and, because of the museum’s peripheral involvement, it was forced to report to many departments regarding the issue for two years.

Though Sao La’s mandate is to provide cultural programming, since most local people do not frequent the museum, their task is often made difficult due to seemingly unreasonable censorship. Tung said:

They want the programme, but they have no intention to do it. It took us three months to write a proposal and they threw it in the garbage.

Tung cited another example of a group show of young, talented filmmakers. Sao La had secured both sponsors and a license. They had everything lined up, but the museum still cancelled the show. The museum also refuses to supply normal items such as chairs and tables – everything must be rented. Currently, the rent from Sao La and other organisations using the museum space covers a part of the museum’s expenses.

"Ke Mong Du, Sleepwalker", pop up performance, January 2015. Image courtesy Sao La.

“Ke Mong Du, Sleepwalker”, pop up performance, January 2015. Image courtesy Sao La.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen of Sàn Art echoed Tung’s sentiments. Singers and songwriters have gone missing in the past because of what they wrote.

Censorship is integrated into the psychological fabric of cultural producers. […] The Vietnamese Government is an invisible force.

Paperwork must be submitted, and the Ministry of Culture and the Information Ministry are constantly censoring art. Even commercial films that are violent cannot be shown or seen.

Film crew at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, December 2014. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Film crew at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, December 2014. Photo by Ellen Pearlman.

Missions and strategies

Sao La had just signed a lease with the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum to continue for another year. Art Radar asked Tung why, with all the censorship, he wanted to stay. “The space is nice,” he replied, adding:

And it is a chance for those on the outside of the Vietnam art scene to work on the inside. We know we will have a lot of difficulty, but we will do it and face it for another year and then re-evaluate.

Sao La will move forward using pop-up shows and social media to circumvent current restrictions. This means not applying for a license and announcing shows on the spur of the moment on Facebook – a real DIY guerilla ethos. Museum officials, Tung explained, don’t rigorously check Facebook – which is allowed in Vietnam, as are social media platforms like Twitter. When shows are announced, if fifty people show up, the doors are locked and the event, exhibition or screening takes place.

“Our mission is bigger than their mission,” Tung said. “For local people, they deserve that, we need to bring it here.” His new ethos also includes re-branding an exhibition through product presentations, which means sculptures and installation take on new twists. This approach reflects the inherent tensions still playing out within the confines of the museum between the original southern, bourgeoisie school of art and aesthetics versus the propaganda-heavy approach of the North.

In early January 2015, Moon Moon and Nguyen Chung performed “Ke Mong Du – Sleepwalker” as a pop-up event at the newly ‘rebranded’ Sao La – with no permissions necessary. By all indications posted on Facebook, it appeared to be a resounding success.

Ellen Pearlman


Related Topics: Vietnamese artists, overviews, art and the internet, censorship of art, contemporary art in Vietnam

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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