Vietnamese artists spotlighted in Worcester Art Museum Southeast Asia Artist-In-Residency program


WORCESTER — There are some events coming up locally this week at which you can meet two contemporary artists, one from Hanoi and one from Ho Chi Minh City — a rare opportunity even if you were in Vietnam instead of Worcester.

Nguyen The Son, a photographer and mixed-media artist who is a professor of fine arts in Hanoi, says that there are only about 100 independent contemporary artists in all of Vietnam. There are many thousands of painters, he said, but they mainly still follow strict government guidelines that discourage anything edgy or outspoken. Instead, they paint souvenir-shop pieces such as traditional landscapes, famous tourist spots or the images of the changing seasons.

Although he has shaken off those government strictures, The Son doesn’t fault artists who stick with the time-tested styles since they are only trying to make a living in a part of the world where a lack of museum, gallery and funding resources makes that especially difficult.

A new Southeast Asia Artist-In-Residency program at Worcester Art Museum aims to help fill in that gap. The Son and Nguyen Kim To Lan of Ho Chi Minh City are the first artists chosen for the monthlong program, which culminates with a farewell party open to the public on Sept. 21. You can meet the artists at Worcester’s stART on the Street event Sept. 16 and at an open studio at WAM Sept. 20.

The artist-in-residency program is organized in collaboration with the Wellesley-based Indochina Arts Partnership and the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts. According to WAM, the program’s objectives are threefold: to support emerging artists from Southeast Asia, where the infrastructure and institutional support for contemporary artists are scarce or in some extreme cases nonexistent; to create meaningful connections between the community of artists, Southeast Asians and the general public in Worcester with the art and culture of Southeast Asia; and to focus on the internationally diverse connections within Worcester and the vital global role an encyclopedic museum, such as the Worcester Art Museum, plays in its community.

“Generally in Southeast Asia, there isn’t too much infrastructure of funding to show and support contemporary art practices,” said Vivian Li, WAM’s associate curator of Asian art and global contemporary art, who is the residency program coordinator. “Museums like ourselves need to step up and help cultivate this new generation of artists coming from all over the world and especially in Southeast Asia where the support is lacking.”

So, The Son and To Lan are among the few in Vietnam who have bravely ventured into the contemporary art realm. The two emerging artists have very different styles, with The Son working with realism and sometimes hyperrealism, and To Lan taking a more abstract approach, exploring ideas that are more conceptual in nature.

In a studio at WAM recently, To Lan was piecing together sections of colorful cellophane, a material often used to make the customary glowing lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebrated in many places in Asia. Her piece is like a big translucent collage in a round shape that she plans to slip over the wooden frame of an umbrella, about the size of one you would use at the beach. Images in the collage include the traditional family pictures signifying an attachment to an ancient homeland as well as an astronaut, completing an old-meets-new concept.

For many in Vietnam, the timing of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moonwalk was significant, To Lan said. It was a very tumultuous year in the Western world, but especially so in Southeast Asia with a war in full, explosive swing. The moonwalk represented the realization of hopes and dreams, a stark contrast to the reality the Vietnamese people faced daily, even in the relative calm of Ho Chi Minh City, which both artists refer to by its traditional name of Saigon. Most Vietnamese also do, at least colloquially, The Son said, because there are so many centuries of cultural and historical connections to the name “Saigon,” making it hard to easily substitute the newer, politically derived name.

In a WAM studio adjoining To Lan’s, The Son was working with a pair of life-sized cutout figures, blown up from photographs he made, that he calls The Carriers. The work, meant to be part of a larger three-dimensional Vietnamese street scene, melds old and new, the co-existence of an age-old culture and the modern mores and effects that are rapidly overtaking it.

One of the pair is a woman wearing an iconic pointed rice hat and carrying her load of vegetables in containers hanging at each end of a long, sagging pole, which she has balanced on her shoulder. The modern carrier is a man on a motorcycle laden with cloth-covered packages attached to every available spot with bungee cords.

Thế Sơn’s work shows how the newer iconography of Vietnam is layered over the traditional sights of the city in a society that is rapidly evolving after a long period of creativity-crushing Communism that ensued when the French pulled out of Vietnam. That drab era began in the north in 1954 but came later in South Vietnam, coinciding with the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

In the interim, Saigon had been open to Western influences longer than the north, including an influx of artistic styles. In the north, artists were restricted to painting government-approved propaganda pieces. The same dreary fate befell artists in the south after the Americans pulled out, and things didn’t start to ease a bit until the early 1990s after the Cold War between the United States and Russia ended, The Son said.

Even today, most artists do not feel free to express anything beyond the mundane, safely sticking to the standard pieces tourists tend to buy while the few contemporary artists in Vietnam rely on foreign sales to make ends meet. “We can survive only because of the foreign collectors,” he said.

Cultural exchange opportunities, like the WAM Southeast Asia artist residency program, are helpful in moving the Vietnamese art scene out of its government-imposed stagnation, according to The Son.

“Even right now, art-history programs never mention contemporary art or even modern art,” he said. “Art history in education in the institutions in Vietnam really stops in the middle of the last century.”

The work of both artists can be seen at the stART in the Street festival along Park Avenue between Highland and Pleasant streets from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 16. It also will be on view for two weeks at The Sprinkler Factory, 38 Harlow St., beginning Sept. 21. You can meet the artists at an open studio at Worcester Art Museum from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 20, when the public is invited to visit the artists in their studios, to observe their work and to engage in conversation.

Related events include:

Writers of the Cambodian Diaspora: Panel Discussion

6 p.m. Sept. 20

Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St.

Three Cambodian-born writers — Tararith Kho, Bunkong Tuon and Chath pierSath — will read from their work and participate in a discussion moderated by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies, and associate dean for humanities and diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Connecticut. The writers will talk about their unique experiences as political émigrés or refugees and how these experiences inform their work. This program is co-organized with Consequence magazine and the Center for Gender, Race and Area Studies at Clark University.

Farewell Party

5 to 10 p.m. Sept. 21

The Sprinkler Factory, located at 38 Harlow St., hosts a social gathering in honor of the visiting artists.



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