Tucked down a small alleyway in Binh Thanh District, a group of us are at San Art contemplating a series of seemingly unrelated works of art. There’s an alphabet primer embroidered with silver thread, children on a playground, what looks to be a color blindness eye chart and a student with his hand raised. Over a glass of champagne, art consultant Sophie Hughes points out that they’re actually all part of the same series by artist Phan Thao Nguyen. Upon closer inspection, the embroidered primer is all religious terms in French, Vietnamese and Latin; a giant hand looks to be moving the children around in circles like pieces on a game board and the student raising his hand actually has his eyes closed and his open book is blank.

“This series is set in a fictional school named after Alexandre de Rhodes [a French missionary largely thought responsible for Vietnam’s present Romanized alphabet]. It’s a statement on how literacy or in some cases, illiteracy, has been used to control people,” explains Sophie.

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The thought-provoking images are indicative of Vietnam’s contemporary art movement, a new direction spearheaded by a young generation of artists. “Historically, artists were realigned during the war, expected to support the revolution. They had useful skills for communication and were incredibly effective in Dien Bien Phu and in the American War as morale boosters for soldiers. But what we’re looking at now, post-Doi Moi, is that artists are starting to express themselves again,” says Sophie.
The art revolution, though, has taken significantly longer to emerge than its political counterpart. “There was an interesting phenomenon in Vietnam in the early 90s, a real art boom. Collectors from Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong were buying up a lot of Vietnamese art. But the thing about this art was that it presented a romantic, nostalgic view of Vietnam that everyone wanted after the war ― a slim girl, wearing an ao dai in a conical hat shyly looking up at you. That’s what sold ― faded Indochine colonial [crap] ― and galleries selling it were doing very well as businesses. But they expected their artists to be like manufacturers, to produce these works over and over and over again. There was no breathing space to think about solo shows, to think about what kind of art they wanted to produce. But a small handful of galleries [including San Art with its studio and residency programs] started taking a completely different approach which is to support artists, give them space to exhibit, allow them to grow and experiment. And that’s the interesting art of Vietnam, genuinely coming from young artists, a generation that is experiencing all of these radical changes, processing it and communicating it back through their art. So when you’re looking at these works, you’re seeing a fascinating reflection on contemporary Vietnamese culture. Usually, it takes years to reflect on what ‘contemporary Vietnam’ is, but these artists are reflecting on it right now, a sort of cultural documentation of Vietnam in the present.”

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STUCK IN STORAGE
The art world is beginning to take notice. Sophie speaks of a client who bought a Le Hoang Bich Phuong painting on silk in 2012 for USD2,000. Soon after, the artist was shown in Japan as part of the Asian Women Artists exhibition and the value of her works have since quintupled. “The Vietnamese art market is a very exciting new frontier,” says Sophie, who likens it to a futures market, albeit one with a dark side. “One of the biggest growing businesses in Singapore is art storage. That gives you an idea of how art’s treated as a commodity. That’s why Japanese banks spend tens of millions on Picassos and stick them in a vault. I feel there’s strong potential for Vietnamese art to be a very interesting new market and it will go up in price, but to buy art for that reason, I think, is misguided. I can buy something for a thousand dollars one day, stick it in storage and five years later sell it for USD100,000. But artists produce these works as an expression of themselves, not intending for it to be stuck in storage somewhere.”
While acknowledging the business side of art collecting, Sophie encourages buyers to pick pieces that they connect with on a personal level. “My belief is that the appreciation of art comes from an understanding of it, its context, culture and history. Falling in love with a piece of art often comes from knowing the story behind it ― what inspired it, who the artist was influenced by and what they’ve lived through. That brings the art alive. It’s easy to be swayed by the monetary value and the potential for it to go zooming up in price, but if you talk to any collector, you’ll find that it’s much more a personal and genuine relationship.”

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Sophie notes that the contemporary art collecting scene has bee dominated by expats for many years, but that Vietnam’s nouveau riche will start buying local art. “The argument if you’re talking about luxury is that you can buy the same imported brands, the same car, handbag, whatever, but true luxury is about having an original, a one-of-a-kind, like an haute couture dress. If you do have the means available to get anything, then after a while, once you’ve bought all the brands, then you’re kind of like: ‘OK. What next?’ It’s then that art collecting becomes really exciting.”
Sophie Hughes offers half- and full-day consultancy tours and studio visits. For more, visit Sophies Art Tour.