Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

A Vietnamese Yes We Can: Changing Identities at the UMFA

Dinh Y Nhi, Daughters of Mr. Nguyen I, 2004, gouache on paper, courtesy of Dinh Y Nhi

As I visited the Utah Museum of Fine Arts recently, there to see the exhibit of art from the 1960’s from the museum’s permanent collection (see our blog), I came across the entrance to Changing Identities: Recent Works by Women Artists from Vietnam, an exhibit filled with powerful images that stunned me and drew me in. This unexpected experience proved to be moving, humbling, and enlightening.

Most visitors to the UMFA’s new exhibition will be unfamiliar with Vietnamese women: their place in history and their socioeconomic and political role today. One can learn a lot from a work of art and the exhibition on display at the UMFA is educational and inspiring. It is evident from these works that women in Vietnam are experiencing a greater sense of freedom, of expression and egalitarianism in their society. The exhibition explores a national and gender identity that, no matter how small or obscure, can be represented in today’s global art community. In a pastiche of media, method and meaning, women artists from Vietnam have a chance to say “Yes we can!”

Since the French occupation, which began in the 19th century, the Vietnamese have developed a pronounced national art. In 1925, an art school was established in Hanoi and the first generation of “modern” academic painters and sculptors were educated. One result of this was an impulse to “celebrate the diverse expressions of female identity in a changing society,” to “emphasize Vietnamese women’s individual experience.” The present exhibition is a reflection of these developments.

A cross section of artists was chosen for this exhibit, representing the vicissitudes of Vietnamese women. There is a range of Modern and Contemporary works, from the lucid to the obscure, and each artist is represented by a series. Because of this, the UMFA’s back hall resonates loudly with the bold, existential journeys of the mind, body and soul of an underrepresented collective demographic.

These artists are not the Asian “wallflowers” one might stereotypically think Vietnamese woman to be. They are women of strength, unwilling to succumb to their relative obscurity in the world; instead these artists make bold statements about their past, reclaiming their place in today’s Vietnam and the world. These imaginative and creative works — executed in a multitude of approaches — give a notion of what a woman of Vietnamese origin is really about. If this is representative of most Vietnamese women, they are a formidable force. In these works there is a commanding presence reflecting Vietnamese femininity with a vociferousness similar to what western women experienced in the feminist revolution. These paintings are more than portraits, they are declarations: “I am a Vietnamese woman, I am happy, I matter, I am equal to you — take it or leave it.”

Nguyen Thi Chau Giang was a particularly interesting artist because her work was divided into two bodies, both disparate and equally telling. The first body, painted in 2002, was directly influenced by Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo, another woman in an underrepresented demographic. Perhaps the Vietnamese artist chose her for this similarity, but more likely for the opportunity to use the vibrant, lucid colors, symbols, motifs, and cold direct gaze of the Mexican artist. Just as Kahlo’s did, Giang’s works speak directly to the viewer as in “Happy Days” (2002). There is no question in this gaze that Giang means anything but an unequivocal, “This is me, this is my soul, this is my heart, I hide nothing and you can take me or reject me.” She does not hide behind her identity as a Vietnamese woman, does not sentimentalize it but states it matter of factly. These are honest portraits in pure Kahlo fashion with their requisite dash of surrealism. She seems to speak for all Vietnamese women.

Her other body of work is entirely different: primitive, organic, earthy, ethereal, archaic and resonating with the role of women in traditional Vietnamese folklore. These pieces seem to represent the heritage of Vietnamese women, revealing to the viewer Giang’s origins and why she can now, in her “Kahlo portraits” speak so boldly and directly. A work like “Village Talk” (1999) is very appealing and enlightening for the Western contemporary viewer. We know these pieces are contemporary but they investigate a past that is assuredly sacred to the Vietnamese woman of today. Giang is empathetic to them as women and empathetic to the tumultuous past they and many Vietnamese women led collectively. They are the past and Giang is the future.

In a stunning manner reminiscent of Matisse, with abstracted hues and semi-abstract form, Ly Tran Quynh Giang paints women of her country as few women will paint women. Her portraits do not gaze at you, they are at war with you; and as a viewer you lose. The viewer undoubtedly cannot help, as I was, to be shocked by these steely eyes that don’t gaze at you but through you. These are commanding presences, conveying, in works like the small portrait “Giang” (2002) a defiant emotion: “don’t cross my path or you will not make it back.” I found it a thrilling encounter to find such power in a work of art, to not look but to be looked at, to be a little afraid! One gets a notion that there is a change occurring for women in Vietnam and if these women are in a feminist era, with other Vietnamese women artists on par with these works, they will assuredly accomplish the victory they seek.

The ghost-like pastel drawings of Dinh Y Nhi are the ones that first caught my attention and imagination and led me into the exhibition. These fantastical gouache on paper drawings, like “Daughters of Mr. Nguyen” (2005), are each a series of young girls, drawn in an abstract, childlike manner, uninhibited and innocent but also haunting. The viewer knows nothing about these works. Who is Mr. Nguyen, who are these daughters, why are they painted in a childlike manner, why is each daughter homogeneous with the next, why are they painted in repetition? These answers are not provided, yet one has an eerie sense of innocence lost, an uncanny, almost palpable sensibility that Mr. Nguyen is not an honorable man. These daughters float, like ghosts, in space — they are already lost souls.

Ly Tran Quynh Giang, Giang, 2002, oil on canvas, courtesy of Christopher L. Dodge

The artists discussed above perhaps are painting and opening themselves boldly and proudly, “in a Kahloesque manner” or challenging you to submission in the Matissesque portraits, to make sure that these “Daughters” will have the future they deserve and will grow up to be strong women and be able to say “We’re here, we’re Vietnamese women, we are strong, get used to it.”
Changing Identity: Recent Works by Women Artists from Vietnam is at the UMFA through December 28 (please note: this is a new closing date). The exhibit is organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C., and supported in part by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation.

Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.

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