One, age 68, works in a small, quiet studio located in a warren of alleys off Van Cao, where she also gives classes to students who come from across the world. Her workspace is orderly — well-spaced tables, neatly arranged brushes, hammers and spatulas, bowls of viscous lacquer, boxes of pigments, eggshell and mother-of-pearl, tidy cabinets of art books, wooden boards awaiting painterly imagination. She taught art at the Hanoi University of Fine Arts for 36 years before her retirement. She is well-versed in many forms of art but specialises in silk fabric and lacquer painting. Her demeanor is serene, gentle and Zen-like. She is an old-school Hanoian, versed in the artistic practices of the last century.
The other, in her mid-30s, works in a bright, airy studio just off nearby Thuy Khue. The small room above a thrift shop and a meeting room is a jumble of books, CDs, paper sculptures, Japanese dolls and Indonesian wooden puppets. She honed her skills at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she attended on a scholarship after graduating from the Hanoi University of Fine Arts. She gave up her early inclination for lacquer to dabble in miniaturised pen and paper drawings and installations. ‘Doodling’ is what she calls her intricate sketches. She bursts with energy — her hands, eyes, feet and mouth are in perpetual motion. Besides constantly creating and exhibiting her own work, she is a part-time lecturer and also leads art tours in the city. She is a global citizen, speaking not just Vietnamese and English but also a smattering of Spanish and Japanese, having lived in Italy, Japan, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, Spain and the US.
Meet Le Kim My, a grande dame of lacquer and silk painting, and Vu Kim Thu, doodler extraordinaire. Mother and daughter. Teacher and student, student and teacher. Each in their own time. Two artists who have forged their own paths. Their story is also the story of Hanoi and of being female, and how attitudes to life and art have evolved.
In the Blood
Thu carries forward an enviable artistic legacy spanning two generations. Her maternal grandfather, Le Quoc Loc, was a famous lacquer painter, whose work hangs in the gallery devoted to 20th century Vietnamese art in the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. Four of his six children, including Madame My (as her students fondly know her), took to the creative arts, covering the spectrum from industrial design to documentary filmmaking.
“I grew up steeped in artistic traditions,” recalls My. “From the time my siblings and I were very young, we saw my father painting and were privileged to meet many of his artist friends. We saw them at work, where their dedication and passion was infectious. From this, our love for art grew.”
Fast forward a generation and the tradition continues.
“Because of both my parents and my maternal grandfather, my brother Thao and I were exposed to artistic practices from a very young age,” says Thu. “I saw my grandfather working on his lacquer paintings, scrutinising the images that would appear after another round of constant polishing. It was, quite simply, an amazingly stimulating environment for us. My mom was doing a lot of silk painting in the old days and my dad was director of the Institute of Arts and Crafts, an association of master artisans and craftsmen from all over Vietnam. He was constantly bringing home exquisite handicrafts, everything from embroidery to silverware from all over the country.
“In the end, there simply didn’t seem to be any other interesting fields of study. Both Thao, my brother, and I chose art but, really, it chose us as well.”
“Being a female artist in my generation was a challenge,” says My. “We had to study and work just as hard as our male counterparts. But after work, it was us, as women, who had to assume the traditional responsibilities of being wives and mothers. It fell to us to look after the household, cook and take care of our children. Many of my contemporaries… had to give up their careers in art because they had to raise their families.”
Thu’s side of the story reveals how times are changing.
“Artistic practice needs personal time and space while with family, it is community time,” she explains. “My mother has always been a very family-oriented person. She somehow managed to strike a balance between her professional career as an artist and her personal life as a mother and wife. But my own experience has been very different — to a large extent because I am not married and also because I have had my mother’s support in all the choices I have made, choices that have not conformed to conventional gender stereotypes in [this] country.”
This disregard of conformist expectations pervades Thu’s artistic sensibilities as well: “My work is completely detached from gender. There is a common misconception that female artists create ‘feminine’ work and that art made by a woman is instantly recognisable.”
Her approach to art is instead to search for a theme and then create around it. It is “fluid, organic, constantly evolving” and Thu says her gender has no role to play in it.
Her most recent exhibition, Space Minimization, was an indication of her relentless urge to experiment. The exhibit, an outcome of her residency in Kamiyama, Japan, placed dramatic black drawings on ivory-coloured washi (handmade paper) into small wooden lightboxes, creating the effect of a luminescent, backlit miniature stage. This was just the latest step in Thu’s voyage of self-discovery across various continents and cultures. At Sanskriti Kendra in New Delhi in 2009, she produced constructs from vibrantly coloured paper, while her dual stint at the Bellagio residency in Italy yielded rigorously detailed wire creations and black and white imaginings of city maps.
Asked what her current artist-in-residence programme at A Coruña in Spain would result in, she responded: “I dont really know. I usually enter a residency as a palimpsest, ready to be written over again. I explore the country, its culture, its foods, its people with an open mind. I never go with the fixed plan that a residency must be followed by an exhibition. That’s not how I operate. It is creatively limiting. Instead, I just let myself be and distill the atmosphere I am in.”
Madame My’s art, in contrast, appears on the surface to be static. She continues to work with traditional forms of lacquer and silk. But like her daughter, Madame My is anything but content to churn out scene after scene of girls in ao dai wearing conical hats or boys playing flutes while sitting atop buffalo. She paints miniatures of men getting haircuts at roadside barbers’ shops, violets when they bloom in the brief Hanoi spring, the morning’s catch at the Red River docks — all reflective of a range of sentiments. Despite the muted colours, the images are vibrant.
“I am very clear that I don’t want to dabble in ‘new’ forms like my daughter, but I do enjoy experimenting with new materials, techniques and themes,” says My. “I really wish I had an iPhone to take photos — there’s so much that’s exciting happening every day, everywhere here in Hanoi that I’d like to capture and transfer from real life onto my silk canvas and wooden boards.”
As Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam changes, what does the future hold for these artists? For Madame My’s generation, which lived during and after the war years, the focus was on economic survival. Resources were rare and the country shuttered, but Madame My feels this worked to her advantage.
“Art supplies, materials and opportunities might have been limited, but we still found a way to work around such obstacles,” she explains. “It was exhilarating and it was also a very stimulating time for us as we moved forward as a nation. Post Doi Moi (Vietnam’s economic reforms of 1986), of course, things have changed dramatically. Vietnamese artists are much more exposed now to foreign influences and markets. The challenge is to tap into these new spaces, without sacrificing their integrity to their craft.”
Says Thu: “I think Vietnamese artists nowadays enjoy tremendous opportunity, especially my generation and after. We no longer suffer from poverty, we have much more freedom in our ideas, we can travel, have our pick of the best materials and [can] fully explore and push boundaries.
“With our generation, we have plenty of everything, which is great but it is also a tremendous challenge — so many directions to go in and so many choices to make in the midst of an increasingly complex society.”