Last year, a friend called me with the bad news. A local newspaper had reported that Hoang, popularly known as Himiko, was in a coma following a road accident. The cause varies with the source. Depending on the newspaper, the friend or the day you ask Himiko herself, it either involved alcohol (although several of her friends report that she doesn’t drink), or someone driving into her while she stood on a pavement, or her losing control of a friend’s borrowed, supercharged motorbike.
Whatever happened, it led to grave head injuries. Surgeons cut out a piece of her cranium to minimise the damage of brain swelling. She was in a life-threatening coma for days. Weeks later, conscious again, she started a visual diary on Facebook. The unflinching photos of stitches and scars are not for the fainthearted. They are testament to the highly skilled medical team, who grafted back the part of the skull they had earlier removed and frozen.
This is the story of a young Vietnamese woman whose drive to make art is so forceful that even a hole in the head hasn’t curbed her plans to make bigger and better artworks.
A Way Back
Himiko says her life turned into a Korean film: following a dramatic accident, the protagonist breaks up with their lover, and it all ends in tears.
Storms of tears flowed, but not from pain. “After the accident I was always crying loudly and having tantrums, like a five-year-old child,” the 30-something artist chuckles. “People who are broken in the head come back as children. I think now I’m 13.”
Himiko’s grin turns intense, as she explains that researching brain injuries has helped her understand the changes caused by the accident, the recovery process and the split from her former partner. She raves about Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk on brain science.
In less than a year, her recovery has been remarkable. “I didn’t die because before I had done yoga training three or four days a week,” she says.
A New Beginning
Concussion can affect language skills. The first time I saw Himiko after the accident she told me she wanted to practice English, because her Vietnamese had become childlike. This admission came from someone who had studied Russian, and who had worked as a translator in Japan to save money to study art.
“My family do not understand about art. My family is very poor, we couldn’t all study at university,” says the ninth sibling, who started making origami art for friends’ birthdays since she could not afford to buy gifts. She put herself through university and saw her art prices rise. Five Years and Beginning was Himiko’s university thesis, finished in 2005 after five years at art school. She’s now onto another beginning, one in which she wears hats more than she used to. But inside her head, there are still fireworks.
Himiko continues to make art from her Old Dreams studio in central Ho Chi Minh City. Any artwork she sells funds her dreams, new or old. Excited about her next project, a further development of a photographic series titled Come Out, Himiko emails curators at luxury hotels, takes calls from galleries and receives private collectors. “She is a true artist. She has given up everything for art,” says one collector, who has known Himiko since the start of her career.
Old Dreams Die Hard
It was only two months after graduating that she opened the first Himiko Café. It was in the living room of a shared house. “I thought of opening a café because Vietnamese people always go to cafés, they don’t want to go to galleries and museums,” she says.
Saigon was a different place in 2005. There were hardly any galleries. Himiko’s success was to find a way to show art that suited the local mindset. It was sparked off by her determination to have more than the one exhibition a year she might get if she relied on other art spaces.
“If artists want to exhibit in San Art [which didn’t exist at the time] or Galerie Quynh,” she says, “they need to write a proposal and this is difficult. With Himiko they got a yes. I understand them.” Her low bureaucracy approach gave opportunities to many, and the rotating exhibitions made the café a more interesting place to go.
The grass roots, lo-fi approach might suggest a somewhat provincial art style. But with Himiko it only indicates openness and forward-thinking. Her own artwork is in two important collections of Vietnamese art.
One day the alternative art space was closed down. The culprit was nude photography, too risqué for millennial Vietnam. But Himiko Café was reborn a second time in a different location. It lasted some years before the same thing happened again. She opened a third, but was unable to keep it following her accident. She is now waiting for an investor to help her set up a new café. She ploughed money from her art sales in the cafés. Now Himiko owes nothing, but is back at square one.
It shouldn’t be a problem for her to begin again. “If you believe in good you get good energy,” she says. Before the accident she got on with her life and didn’t think much about others. Now the sound of an ambulance makes her take stock.
“Before [the accident] I didn’t care,” she says. “But now I care.”
Himiko’s Visual Café now exists online at himikocafe.blogspot.com. Her art will be on show at Sofitel Saigon Plaza, 17 Le Duan, Q1, in December, part of the exhibition Fragments of History