The Nguyen dynasty shares its surname with about 40 percent of Vietnamese people, yet the Nguyen royals seem too far gone to have been around until 1945. Vietnam’s last dynasty is the subject matter of Tran Minh Tam’s paintings on show at Craig Thomas Gallery. The glowing portraits of a lost dynasty are mostly of emperors and empresses, but include mandarins, unknown court entertainers and servants. Decorative patterns or symbolic landscapes fan around the centrally positioned, hieratic imperial leaders.
General Le Van Duyet performs a majestic horse jump over southern rice fields. The delicately framed but powerful man, said to be born a hermaphrodite, is painted on a bed. “I like beds because we sleep in them,” the painter says, smiling. “So many people slept there, too, and they told stories to their kids.”
The strength of the artworks is the support. Instead of canvas, Tam paints these portraits on old furniture. “In Saigon old things are thrown away,” she says, not needing to explain the drive to modernise and beautify that now rules this land. “The way they toss old stuff outside mirrors the way they have forgotten history.”
The old tabletops, cabinets, doors and screens were dismissed as obsolete and abandoned. “Some of the furniture could be as old as the Nguyen dynasty,” Tam says, hopefully. Once restored and painted, the wooden pieces shine with beauty like the ancient capital of Hue in its former glory.
A History in Lacquer and Oil
Some years ago, the artist started reading history online and in secondhand books, to research the Nguyen dynasty. Tam believes that the history books he read at school did not provide faithful accounts of the past. The pre-1975 versions tell a different story.
Tam wants his artworks to incite a curiosity about history. The easy access to the Internet, compared to the difficulty of accessing some books in public libraries, is a great learning tool, he finds.
The portraits are painted mostly with traditional Vietnamese lacquer, used in ancient times to prevent wooden objects from rotting. Some details, especially the fresh faces, are rendered in oil paint, an artistic medium introduced to Vietnam by the French during the Nguyen dynasty.
The artworks in House of Nguyen are suggestive of the mysteries of the past. Ponder over the unknown origin of the discarded furniture, or the untold histories of the long-gone monarchs. — Cristina Nualart
House of Nguyen ends Jan. 3, at Craig Thomas Gallery, 27i Tran Nhat Duat, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City