The piercing blue eyes ringed in black shadows stare at me intensely from across the room. Set into a face that looks half-human, half-bird, the painting confidently surveys its territory like a hawk from a nest. That territory is Manzi, a place that co-founders Tram Vu and Bill Nguyen describe as part art space, part performance venue, and part café and bar.
Since opening, Manzi’s calm interior has become a familiar and welcome respite from the city’s hectic streets. Meeting there regularly with my writers’ club, the long communal tables topped with cheerful flowers serve as the perfect place to discuss our writing — the ever-changing artwork never failing to inspire. Paintings hang from every surface, the human-bird portrait just one of the many interesting pieces adorning the walls. A small shop on the second floor sells work by Vietnamese artists.
“We are trying to test the local market,” says Tram. “Most wealthy Vietnamese are only interested in buying cars and brands, they don’t think about investing in art. We are slowly trying to change that.”
Art for the People
In founding Manzi, Tram and Bill managed to create a space that effortlessly blurs the boundaries between café and gallery. “It was originally Tram’s idea to create an art space that also functions as a café and bar,” says Bill. “This was a bit of an experiment and we developed this really ambitious plan to test a new model for exhibiting art in Hanoi.”
Working as the art manager at the British Council for a decade, Tram left to become a freelance art consultant for galleries and studios around the country. It was during this period that she approached Bill with the idea for Manzi.
“Manzi was established with the aim to develop an audience for art, to promote contemporary art and to support Vietnamese artists,” says Tram. “Artists doing creative work often don’t know how to run a studio or gallery, so we created Manzi as a place for them.”
There is another connection Manzi’s blurred lines are attempting to reach — an audience that normally wouldn’t enter a gallery. Tram says, “We wanted it to be an easy place for everyone to enjoy art in a relaxed space.”
As the conversation continues, the comfortable and respectful relationship between Bill and Tram becomes increasingly apparent. Although from different generations — Tram was born in 1973 and Bill in 1988 — the duo work seamlessly together, ideas and topics bouncing between them as they finish the other’s sentences and talk over each other. I ask if they are artists themselves.
“I was trained in fine arts,” Bill says — he graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2009. “But I haven’t really made much recently.”
“Yes, you have,” cuts in Tram. “You have done many things, especially in performance art.”
“Yeah, but they were really just experiments,” he says.
Tram brushes over his modesty. “I think Bill will be a very important curator in the future of Vietnam,” she says. “He has a good critical mind and understands the scene. But more importantly, he can understand the artist. I think he could be one of the best.”
“I don’t know, I have a long way to go,” Bill says, shrugging. “I feel like I don’t belong anywhere — but I feel like this rootlessness is really important in my work, so I can sneak in between places of knowledge and link different worlds.”
They’ve both seen the local art scene slowing down. “2006 was a big time for contemporary art in Vietnam, but since then it has been very slow,” says Tram. They haven’t seen much from the recent university graduates and they lament the old fashioned education many young artists are receiving.
“There is no depth to their work, they are not taught to think critically,” says Bill.
But a new generation of innovative new artists could be just around the corner. “There is the potential for Bill’s generation to be really good,” says Tram. Vietnam is changing rapidly, and the current crop of young artists have more access to the world than ever before. They both feel that the influence and information pouring in from around the globe is great for artistic creativity, as long as young artists are able to filter the information and create something meaningful.
Into Thin Air
It is clear that Tram and Bill genuinely love their work at Manzi and are eager to welcome all forms of art. “We’re open for anything really, as long as it’s good quality,” says Bill. Just as he says this, a package of clothes is delivered for a conceptual fashion show they will host later in the month — the clothes portray images of altar paintings depicting the 18 levels of Buddhist hell.
As if fashion shows, photography exhibitions and music nights aren’t enough, Tram and Bill are also planning a public art series entitled Into Thin Air — a project that will contract artists to create one-off pieces for public spaces around the city. They hope this will challenge both the artist and the public.
“There is no public art in Hanoi,” says Tram, “and we want to give artists that freedom and audiences that access.” Art and public space belongs to both everyone and no-one, and Into Thin Air aims to tie this concept into the limitless imagination that encapsulates art-making. “However, this is all contingent on funding,” says Bill. “We are looking everywhere for grants we can apply for.”
Neither Tram nor Bill can tell me what the future holds for the Hanoi art world or for Manzi, but one thing is for sure — they will continue promoting Vietnamese art and they will continue pushing boundaries.
“Manzi in Vietnamese means savage; it also means independent and different,” explains Tram. “By naming our art space Manzi, we show that we are an integral part of the local art scene, but also act as an independent entity.”
Manzi Art Space is at 14 Phan Huy Ich, Ba Dinh, Hanoi