"Everybody can have art'

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Guests pose with Saigon Artbook, an art quarterly, at the launching ceremony of the first issue on October 17 in Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTOS COURTESY OF SAIGON ARTBOOK

"Artists are starving because no one enjoys and buys their works."

This drastic statement was made by Hanoi artist Dao Anh Khanh at a conference held recently by the Vietnam University of Fine Arts.

Khanh made an impassioned appeal to the government, saying it needs to pay more attention to Vietnamese contemporary art.

But, artist Le Quang Dinh, co-founder of San Art in Ho Chi Minh City, did not agree. He said contemporary arts should be on the "sidelines" and that it needs "a private space to develop before entering the society."

If Alexandre McMillan, a professional photographer from the US, were to hear Khanh and Dinh, he would disagree with both. 

A resident of HCMC for about five years, McMillan believes that people here are "hungry" and "ready" for the promotion of arts, and that "everyone can have art," be they rich or poor, highly-educated or not.

Last month, he and his partners at The Others Creative House Company launched the first issue of a quarterly called Saigon Artbook, featuring the works of HCMC-based artists.

Its launching ceremony, which included an exhibition of the works and a party with foods, drinks and live music, was organized at a downtown restaurant. Admission was free and 500 copies of the book were distributed for free as well.

The event drew considerable public attention with hundreds of visitors, mostly young Vietnamese people, turning up. Local media carried favorable reports, calling it "interesting", "fresh" and "daring" in a country where art is considered beyond the purview of the "commoner."

"It was way more successful than expected," McMillan said, explaining that they expected very few people would come, and that half of the guests would be foreigners. In the end, Vietnamese attendees accounted for up to 90 percent.

"I think Vietnamese are ready for this [art promotion] and they love it."

More culture, less beauties

Saigon Artbook is a product of The Others Creative House, which consists of three foreigners and two Vietnamese who work to create "cool things that change the culture of Saigon [now HCMC] in a positive way."

They use their own funds for this, apart from seeking sponsors.

It is in fact the brainchild of McMillan, who wants to make young people "value and celebrate arts", and change Vietnamese opinion that artists are not part of the mainstream.

He said originally he wanted to make an art magazine, after working with many fashion and lifestyle magazines and seeing how they were fully covered with advertisements and photos of models and celebrities.

"Vietnam needs more culture inside a magazine rather than beautiful women.

Alexander McMillan, the initiator of Saigon Artbook

However, McMillan later changed his plan and decided on a book, because it is much more difficult to apply for a license to publish magazines in Vietnam.

Then he contacted sponsors and artists and convinced them to join the project, which was not an easy task, because "nobody knew who I am." But, in the end, he managed to get the nod of some sponsors and three artists: one French, one Japanese, and one Vietnamese-French.

After a year and a half, the first issue of the book came in an A5 size with a light jade cover. Its title's design was inspired by classified ads that are painted or stenciled on Vietnamese street walls.

The first photo in it is of an old alley in HCMC, which McMillan describes as "an inspiration to pull people into Vietnam."

The first edition of the quarterly carries brief profiles of the artists and their works which are presented without being disturbed by captions or sponsors' names. Instead, all information about the works can be found later.

The book is like a miniature exhibition, allowing people to keep the art works in their hands and take them everywhere, even though they cannot afford to buy the real works or have a place to display them at their home.

In an interview with Saigoneer website, Japanese artist Ayano Otani said when she was offered the chance to collaborate with Saigon Artbook almost one year ago, she immediately agreed and created 14 works specifically for the project. 

She said: "I don't care about selling them [the drawings] or making money. I would like to make people excited when they see art. Sharing these feelings creates a kind of connection between people."

According to McMillan, he wanted Saigon Artbook to focus on Vietnamese artists, but the first issue ended up featuring none, because those who were featured are the ones that believed in him and his idea.

However, he promised that given the trust he has gained with the first issue, from the second issue onwards, there will be at least one local artist who works will be presented.

"It's important to have local artists inside the book, because it's about celebrating Vietnam's arts. But, it should be new and a very different art."

Explaining why the book is in English, he said he wants to make it accessible to foreigners as well, so that they can realize that right in HCMC there is "original and amazing" art, and that "Vietnam is not a developing country; there are actually creative and amazing people here."

But from the next issue onwards, expected to be out next January with a bigger launching ceremony, Saigon Artbook will be bilingual.

Asked if the book will be given away free indefinitely, McMillan said perhaps after one or two years they will talk about money, like calling for donations to keep the project going.

Giving back

Armed with a master's degree in teaching and a bachelor's degree in English literature, McMillan left his home for Japan seven years ago.

He lived and worked as a teacher in Tokyo for two years, before moving to Vietnam after spending a vacation here and finding how "beautiful" the Vietnamese culture is and how "different" the country is from the US and Japan.

"I think people in this country are happier than other countries I have lived."

In Vietnam, he started out as a teacher until a few years ago he took a break from teaching to work more on his artist side, and became a self-taught professional photographer.

He said with the low cost of living here, he can live a comfortable life, even though he is an artist.

About one year ago, McMillan opened a studio collaborating with famous brands and magazines. But, on his personal blog, he put photographs of dirty, old alleys, of people in the street, things and people that look like they have lots of stories to tell and moods to convey.

"My photography is my tool to communicate the beauty of Vietnam and the beauty of Vietnam's culture," McMillan said.

The American said he has lived outside his home country for seven years and living abroad has its ups and downs with good days and bad days. But, the last two years in HCMC have been "the happiest", as his life is now more stable with friends who are like family to him, and he can speak more of the Vietnamese language, which helps him fit better into life here.

He also said that as a teacher he would probably have left Vietnam someday to teach in some other country, but since he started working with The Others Creative House, he wants to stay in Vietnam longer.

"I feel I have a purpose now, I have a reason to be here as I want to do positive things for my community here."

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