Viewing Vietnam art history without prejudice

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Vietnamese art history need not play second fiddle, says Australian author

Cover of English publication Arts of Vietnam 1009 - 1945 by Kerry Nguyen Long

Kerry Nguyen Long wants to make it clear that she is not stirring up a storm in a teacup with her latest book called "Arts of Vietnam."

Published by the The Gioi (World) Publishers in January, it deals with the development of arts in Vietnam from 1009-1945.

Explaining her "storm in a teacup" reference, Nguyen says:

"For years I have been frustrated with the brevity and tone of comments about, and sometimes the frank dismissal of, Vietnamese arts as presented in a range of publications, general books on the arts of Southeast Asia and in museum catalogues (with the exception of a very few such as Singapore Art Museum). I am talking about the continuing influence of outdated and frankly prejudiced 19th early 20th century perceptions sometimes coupled with disregard for recent research.

"... let me tell you about two recent examples. The first, in a reputable art museum handbook published in 1999, and I quote: "˜so-called "˜golden age' of Vietnam the Ly and Tran dynasties commenced with Vietnam's independence from China. During a subsequent short-lived Chinese incursion in the fifteenth century, the great innovation of blue and white porcelain came to Vietnam from migrant potters from the north [meaning China].' End of quote.

"And this is all there is in this handbook about the arts of Vietnam. Unfortunately these 3 lines are riddled with misinformation and the sad thing is it would likely douse reader interest before they had even begun to know anything about Vietnam's arts. I wanted to cry with frustration when I read that, especially since this handbook is still current."

The second example, Nguyen says, vividly shows the impact of lingering 19th-early 20th century perceptions on the present.
In an article written in 2011, a museum curator gave an honest appraisal of over 1,000 Vietnamese artifacts in her museum, explaining why they had remained in storage from 1935 until 2000, why they were hardly studied, and why no curator had ever expressed any interest in displaying them.

The curator explained the first artifact had actually entered the museum in 1927 simply as pieces acquired for comparison with their Chinese archaeological collection. The Vietnamese objects were for documentation, and considered second rate in comparison with artefacts from China.

"The northern region of what is now Vietnam was reckoned to be a remote territory almost without its own culture, and with its inhabitants having been waiting for the arrival of the first Chinese pioneers to develop an art which only could try and imitate the Chinese one."

Nguyen, whose Vietnamese name comes from her marriage to a Vietnamese Australian, named Nguyen Kim Long, says she wants to do her bit to set the record straight about the history of Vietnamese art.

"I am not Vietnamese, and do not live in Vietnam, but naturally when I married a Vietnamese I was interested to learn about my husband's culture and this led to an interest in the country's arts," the Australian author and art expert told Vietweek in an email interview mid-April.

The 315-page book claims to be the first publication which tells the history of arts development in Vietnam in English, and the first one that covers the entire country, from the north to the south.
Supported with over 300 illustrations, the book introduces major categories of the arts from architecture to painting, metalcrafts to woodblocks and so on.

It also presents them in historical context, from Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) to Nguyen the last dynasty of Vietnam (1802-1945), describing the features of each period and attempts to explain what stayed the same and what changed.

The books goes into details of different craft techniques and  sculptural styles and also deals with local artists' responses to the concept of fine arts that was introduced in 20th century.

No single book

Nguyen said her work fills an important space because there is no other single book that deals with the chronological development of Vietnam arts and none that deals with the subject across the thousand-year period.

Nguyen, whose academic studies focused on Greek and Roman arts, first encountered Vietnamese culture in the 1960s, first visited the country in the 1970s, and in the early 1980s had hands-on experience handling 14th to 15th century Vietnamese ceramic exported to the Philippines where she worked for a local museum from 1979 until 1999.

Since 1999, she has been a contributing editor for the international bimonthly magazine, Arts of Asia, published in Hong Kong, in which she writes on Vietnam.

Her work has also been featured in books, arts magazines, museum catalogues, and journals, including the bi-lingual book "Vietnamese Blue and White Ceramics" (2001).

In Vietnam, Nguyen says, returning to the paucity of good material on Vietnamese art, the old literature on the arts still prevails and its outdated viewpoints continue to be consulted and then repeated in new publications simply because there is no other literature out there to replace this outmoded thinking.

"This situation is gradually changing but it is a very slow process."
Nguyen said that a book called "Vietnamese Ceramics: A Separate Tradition" by John Stevenson and John Guy, (1997), addresses the problem of the traditional view of Vietnamese art as deriving from and inferior to the Chinese, but "it is only about ceramics and considerable new data has come to light since it was written.

"The time factor is also problem. People don't take time to look for the latest data, and if it is not readily available they use what is at hand, and that can be seriously outdated. And of course the  barrier of language feeds into this. It is still a big problem. That is why I wrote this book in English."

Another reason for an English language publication is that most of the in-depth research done by Vietnamese scholars on the arts is unfortunately most is "locked away in Vietnamese language journals and books and is not accessible to most citizens of the world."

Post-publication tasks

It took Nguyen and her husband, a consultant economist who volunteered to take photos for the book's illustrations and be a patient translator, five years to travel around the country, collecting materials and talking to artisans.

Though the publication is partly supported by the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, coinciding with this year's 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the couple as well as their daughter Nguyen Mai Long, a visual artist, are still working hard to promote the book to its readers, especially since it is priced quite high at VND1.2 million (US$60).

"Vietnam has a long and rich artistic tradition. But it's a tradition that is often overlooked in general studies of Asian art history," says Hugh Borrowman, Australian ambassador to Vietnam in a foreword to the book.

"I am confident that Kerry Nguyen Long's book will broaden understanding of this tradition, drawing on her significant expertise and experience in Vietnamese arts."

There are only 700 copies of the first edition, according to Director of The Gioi Publishers Tran Doan Lam.

Lam had first met Nguyen at a seminar on Bat Trang ceramics in 1995, for which the Australian had submitted a paper.

At the launching ceremony of the book, Lam had hailed it as "a great contribution to promoting Vietnamese identity."

He told Vietweek that it "proves that Vietnam has its own art tradition which developed constantly over many centuries and that deserves to be recognized by world opinion."

"However, it is not easy to have the book internationally known and to convince the readers that what they receive from the book far surpasses its pricetag."

Apart from Vietnam, "Arts of Vietnam 1009-1945" can be purchased in Australia and Hong Kong.

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