Inspired by a dynasty

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A portrait of Empress Nam Phuong by artist Nguyen Minh Tam

A Nguyen Dynasty-inspired painting exhibition by Nguyen Minh Tam will open at Ho Chi Minh City's Craig Thomas Gallery this Friday, December 6.

The paintings, using traditional Vietnamese lacquer and oil paints, portray figures of the dynasty (1802 1945) against the background of old furniture including old tabletops, cabinets, doors and screens that Tam has collected.

"I like beds too because we sleep in them," Tam is quoted as saying in gallery press release. "So many people slept there too and they told stories to their kids." The home units he gets are unwanted. The people who let the furniture go have dismissed it as obsolete. "Tam plays with that idea and works to render the pieces even more useless. His artworks are no longer utilitarian objects, for instance, cabinets with unopening doors are like mausoleums," the release says.

It says the artist's interest in the Nguyen dynasty started some years ago after reading history online and in second hand books.

Like the old books that got thrown out, so did old furniture. "˜In Saigon the old things are thrown away," the painter says, not needing to explain the drive to modernize and beautify that now rules this land. Tam uses the furniture as a support for his paintings, keeping together the mysteries of the past, the past of the old furniture and of the long-gone monarchs.

Tam started to collect abandoned furniture in 2008. The magic of his first find made him want to nurture the object, preserve its invisible ancestry. It's not uncommon to experience a connection with old or abandoned items. Questions about a mysterious object thrill the imagination. "Some of the furniture could be as old as the Nguyen dynasty," the artist hopes.

Once restored and painted, the wooden pieces shine with beauty like the ancient capital of Hue in its former glory. Tam has obviously enjoyed painting the royals. "Their silk brocades and elaborate headgear signal their status. Background imagery reinforces the symbolism. Decorative patterns or unshakeable mountains fan around the centrally positioned, hieratic kings, queens and mandarins," the release says.

It also says that the selection of sitters "aims to be representative of the whole population." Hence the artist paints "a number of women, second-class citizens at the time, often ignored by history's records." Historical records show that during the Nguyen dynasty's reign, the legal rights of women were reduced, "causing an ideological friction with earlier Vietnamese depictions of women: powerful, risk-taking and intelligent female figures, mythical and historical." Queen consort Nam Phuong is arguably the most memorable woman from the Nguyen dynasty, and her portrait is one of the outstanding pieces on show. "The book in her hands attests to her education, and her regal gaze dissuades us from noticing the manipulated shape of the cabinet," the release says.

The paintings are a made with both traditional Vietnamese lacquer and oil paint, an artistic medium introduced by the French. Tam reflects that it was during the Nguyen dynasty when Vietnamese met Westerners for the first time. "˜They learnt from each other,' he says.

The Nguyen dynasty shares its surname with about 40 percent of Vietnamese people. It was the last dynasty that ruled over a country that had changed names many times over the previous three thousand years.

Tam's art has made sudden changes. His previous series of paintings showed plastic bags full of water in impeccable hyperrealism. He finds no incoherence in moving from one topic to a completely different one. He notes that the Nguyen emperors could change wives whenever they felt like it. He adds, smiling, "maybe I want to be a king."

Craig Thomas Gallery is located at 27i Tran Nhat Duat Street, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1, HCMC. The exhibition will run until January 8, 2014.

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