The pretensions of the nouveau riche

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A painting exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City mocks the newly rich who seek a life of "˜luxurious decadence' by freeing themselves "˜from"¦ traditional Vietnamese culture and values'

Paintings at "˜Crazy People' exhibition at Craig Thomas Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City during May. Photo: Craig Thomas Gallery.

An art gallery in downtown Ho Chi Minh City is hosting an unusual exhibition. It features paintings depicting Vietnamese nouveau riche who act like muppets dancing to the tune of the new hyper-materialism, according to Bui Thanh Tam, the creator of the works.

Tam, 33, says that his "Crazy People" exhibition at the Craig Thomas Gallery is influenced by Chinese cynical realism, which arose in the 1990s, with artists using humor and irony to hold up a mirror to socio-political issues.

"I live in a world where most of my contemporaries are focused only on things like money, social status, reputation, and personal pleasure."

His oil-on-canvas works were inspired by the arhant sculptures found in Buddhist temples like the Tay Phuong Pagoda in northern Vietnam, he says.

The gallery's website says: "According to Mahayana Buddhist tradition, arhants are at a lower level than bodhisattvas and have reached their liberation from the cycle of life and death known as samsara in an undesirable and self-serving way.

"Like arhants, Tam's crazy people seek their own personal nirvana through a selfish and unworthy path. For them the goal is a life of luxurious decadence and to achieve this they seek to free themselves not from materialism and physical desires, but from the virtues embodied in traditional Vietnamese culture and values.

"Tam gives his characters the familiar stylized faces of Vietnamese water puppets and portrays them with simpleton's smiles and wide doe-eyed stares.

"Their silly visages serve as masks behind which they hide their feelings of confusion and inadequacy. Tam's crazy people are meant to be mocked and pitied but not despised.

"Tam is pointing to the confused use of such symbols in modern Vietnamese society where they have become merely ornamental appendages"¦ to show off within the glittering lifestyle of the newly prosperous."

The exhibition will go on until May 17.

The plunge from law to art

Craig Thomas, founder of Craig Thomas Gallery

Thomas, an American lawyer, established the gallery in 2009 to support young and mid-career artists.

He says he likes young Vietnamese artists since they are willing to break boundaries to speak up their new, unique opinions through their work.

The gallery is at his home at 27i Tran Nhat Duat Street, District 1.

Thomas arrived in Vietnam in 1995 to work for a law office, planning to stay for a year or two. But he stayed on and began to get involved in the local art scene in 2002 as a curator and a manager at a gallery.

He is unhappy that HCMC has yet to have a proper artistic venue with enough space and light for exhibitions, he told Tuoi Tre newspaper in an interview.

Many young artists, who very much need to express their ideas and get responses from the public and critics, have trouble finding a reliable gallery to leave their works, he says.

Despite not being an art professional he is artistically competent enough for young artists to leave their works with him, he says.

He has visited many arts museums in Europe, read many books about paintings, learned from many famous painters, and now interacts regularly with Vietnamese artists.

He does more than just gives budding artists a platform, also buying several paintings from them to ensure they have an income first.

He wants to be able to buy whole collections.

Thomas also teaches young painters English to make them confident about introducing their works to foreigners.

Not being able to speak English will deprive them of many opportunities, he says.

He quit his well-paid job as a lawyer both because he finds more of himself in art and since being a lawyer brings with it a lot of stress.

The art environment is more relaxing with artists generally being very gentle, joyful, flexible, and open-minded, he says.

He began to speak Vietnamese fluently three years after coming to the country and even has a Vietnamese name of Minh (meaning "bright").

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