Japanese artist ‘free & bold’ in Vietnamese lacquer tradition

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Japanese artist Saeko Ando has become the first foreign member accepted by Hanoi Art Association thanks to her devotion to the Son Mai craft and her profound understanding of Vietnamese culture.

Lacquer painting exhibition “Japan in Me” by Saeko Ando in Hanoi.

A new Hanoi exhibition by a Japanese woman who has spent 18 years working with Vietnamese lacquer art reveals the two cultures’ influence on her work, which is at once both uninhibited and contained.

“The paintings I exhibit here are all good examples to show the different aspects of my ‘Japaneseness,’” said Japanese lacquer painter Saeko Ando when asked about the ongoing exhibition.

Entitled, “Japan in Me”, the exhibition includes 32 works that were all painted here in Vietnam with Vietnamese materials.

“You might be very surprised to see how different they are from those by Vietnamese artists. But the only difference is the fact that I am Japanese, not the materials,” she said.

Born in 1968 in Japan, Saeko studied Eastern philosophy and Japanese Arts in her country and then worked for Japan Airlines as a flight attendant. However, she was determined to resign from her work and come to Vietnam to pursue her love of the lacquer arts in 1995.

Though Japan also has a long and established lacquer tradition and Saeko says that she always loved Japanese art of lacquer, it never occurred to her to be a lacquer artist there. She wanted to come here instead.

“I think it is because the way artists work with lacquer are very different in Japan and Vietnam. In Japan, artists have to be so delicate and precise. There are established ways and styles in the art of lacquer that people follow. However, in Vietnam, people work with lacquer very freely and boldly. The Vietnamese way excited more and suited me more.”

‘Inspired by Vietnamese culture’

Many of the lacquer on wood works at Saeko’s show are in small size, including the 15x60-centimeter- “If I was an octopus”, the 43x80-centimeter- “Mirror mirror”, the 15x20-centimeter “UFO – Unidentified Floating Object” or the 60x60-centimeter-“Danu”.

“The obsession with small objects is something very characteristic about Japanese culture,” Saeko explains. “Vietnamese people here seem to think that bigger art works are more valuable and small ones are just for souvenirs. I strongly oppose that common assumption. I aim to condense the beauty and the wonder of life into small paintings to make them shine like gems.”

Saeko says that during her 18 years studying and working on lacquer in Vietnam she has faced many challenges with the new and different materials as well as with studying the techniques used by local artists.

“I’ve also noticed that the Japanese adore the wetly sleekness of monochrome lacquer in black and red. This quality can be emphasized more on curved three-dimensional surfaces. While Vietnamese son mai employs very complex techniques to create countless shades of colors and textures. This can be showcased its beauty more effectively in a fixed format.”

Another “Japaneseness” about Saeko’s work is that it features animals, while Vietnamese artists tend to feature people and landscapes. Snakes, monkeys and octopi all look lively in Saeko’s works. Her command of lacquer techniques, use of rich colors and bold compositions, and creation of elaborate textures, enable her to transform these into enchanting characters each with their own stories. And despite using Vietnamese materials and techniques, Japanese sensitivity exudes from her every painting.

Saeko says that when looking at all the paintings she selected for this exhibition, she realized that she had worked on them with the view, philosophy and aesthetic of a Japanese person.

“The whole process of preparation for this exhibition with this particular theme has been such an interesting experience,” she reveals. “It helped me analyze myself, who has been feeling confused about own identity after 18 years of her life in Vietnam.

And I realized that although I really love Vietnamese culture and was taught by painter Trinh Tuan whose art works inspired me to learn lacquer painting to start with, I did not simply follow his painting style. I still kept my Japanesness in my works.”

Saeko has become the first foreign member accepted by Hanoi Art Association thanks to her devotion to the Son Mai craft and her profound understanding of Vietnamese culture.

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