Art in the city

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For the past three years, Zoe Butt has worked as a co-director and curator of San Art, a non-profit owned gallery space dedicated to fostering contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City.

In addition to offering free training, media promotion and (most importantly) gallery space to young artists in HCMC, San Art offers residents a place to come and experience unconventional forms of expression in a city that has long lacked a modern art scene.

"Working as a curator at San Art in Vietnam has changed me in my curatorial practice," Butt told Thanh Nien Weekly. "It is about being a writer, a communicator, a facilitator, a sales manager and a teacher - not just creating exhibitions."

This month, the gallery has organized a show featuring embroidered panels and ink drawings depicting artist Tammy Nguyen's vision of a battle at sea.

Dynamic and fascinating works like Nguyen's are fairly new to the southern city.

Developing them here is, by no means, an easy job. Particularly for the woman at the head of the operation, curator Zoe Butt, 34. Three years ago, she brought a unique international pedigree to the city's burgeoning scene.

The Chinese-Australian got her degree in post-colonial Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

She has worked as an assistant curator at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia where she helped develop the contemporary Asian Art Collection.

Before coming to Vietnam, she worked in Taipei and Beijing as a curator.

When an overseas collector approaches Butt, most of them look for art that tells a story. They want to see the way artists reflect Vietnam and they want something critical that deals with the modern problems in the developing nation.

Butt says that Vietnam's contemporary art scene is changing, slowly. When she first arrived in Vietnam for the first time in 2007, she understood that finding materials to create contemporary art was extremely difficult for local artists because they lacked government support.

"They are still struggling. There are a few galleries to show their work in and few curators in Vietnam," Butt said. "San Art encourages them to experiment because they cannot wait until they have money."

Butt said that the young artist Bui Cong Khanh is a good example of this new vibrant crop of artists. During the last two years, he has enjoyed a good deal of international exposure.

"Before he was sticking to painting and performance. He diversified and his ideas became deeper. In the past three years, more artists have shown a willingness to explore," said Butt.

Butt believes that artists like Khanh are indicative of the city's next generation that is more confident in its work and more eager to break in to international markets.

Khanh said Butt has helped connect artists here with international buyers and galleries and helped them avoid commercial traps. He said that in two weeks, he will attend a meeting organized by the gallery that will help him obtain international grants for his work.

"In Vietnam, the new arts such as installation are not yet not taught at university," said Bui Cong Khanh. "So the role of San Art in Vietnam is very important for contemporary art here."

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