The Happening

New works by Saigon-based artist Pham Thanh Toan

Pham Thanh Toan burst like a phenomenon onto the contemporary art scene of Saigon in 2018. Born in 1992, Toan exhibits a preternatural confidence and ability with his bold, over-sized canvases. He first exhibited at CTG ( in 2018 and CTG will be taking a collection of his work to Los Angeles in late 2019. The Happening was conceived as a chance to give Saigon art lovers another look at this exciting young artist’s latest work before he begins preparations for his LA solo show.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in Quang Truong (Quang Trach, Quang Binh)—a poor, mountainous, hard-to-access part of the country that is very deprived. It was not until I was 18 years old that I really stepped out of my native village and went to Saigon to study for myself. I also experienced many difficult jobs in my early years. We were very poor materially speaking. I would regularly go down to the creek most days to catch fish and snails for my family. Almost every family meal had some contribution by me.

What are your earliest childhood memories?

I used to draw pictures of dogs, chickens, houses and fruits on the ground. One time my dad saw that I was able to draw well; he told me to draw a portrait of my mom and dad when they were married. The drawing was kept and hung up by my dad. After some time, it was damaged because it was not preserved properly. My dad did give me a gift for having done it though.


Nhung Lo Den – Black Holes. Oil – 220 x 450 cm

When was the first time you composed any kind of art?

The first time I painted was in year four of school when I drew a lion (in Picasso’s style of drawing). At that time I didn’t know anything about art at all. Later, I used to draw flowers and still life paintings during years seven and eight at school. I stopped painting until the time I entered the Fine Arts University of Ho Chi Minh City. At that time I painted a lot and was very creative at night in the dorm. The first painting I drew was a girl swimming with the fish in the ocean. The second one was a portrait of my paternal grandfather.

When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?

One day I was feeling pretty sad and I happened to wander by the gallery of the Fine Arts University of Ho Chi Minh City at 5 Phan Dang Luu Street. I walked into the gallery because I had liked drawing when I was young. When I came in, I liked it right away. I then went to the classrooms to see the students studying. I was enthralled. When I came back to my room, I decided to quit the military academy I was attending so that I could study to be an artist.

Out of all the paintings you have done so far, do you have one or two that you are especially proud of?

The first painting that I always remember is The Afternoon Bell. It was memorable because it was the first painting I painted in at the fine arts school. It also had a story that two-thirds of the teachers in the school did not believe I painted it since I was in the first year at that time. So the teachers did not mark it thinking that there was someone else drawing it for me. I had to do another painting while bearing suspicious looks from my friends as if I were a sinner; at least that is how it seemed to me at the time. Later on, my teachers apologized for not believing me. I then got the absolute highest score for the redrawn painting.

The second painting is Crossing Through the Holy Land. When I created the work, I didn’t know how it would look when it was done. But the picture kept dragging me into its world and I was swept inside the piece as if in a dream. When the piece was done, I didn’t even understand why some parts of the picture were drawn like that, especially the chandelier area. After I finished and posted it on Facebook, a Catholic priest immediately asked to buy it. Then, a Catholic art collector also wanted to buy it. I was very surprised because the painting depicted some bizarre obsessions but the priest still wanted to own it. He said there was tremendous holiness hidden behind the painting.

You seem to have a very good knowledge of art history that I don’t think you picked up just from your studies at the Fine Arts University. How did you gain so much knowledge?

At school, they only train you to be an art official, not really a working artist. What I want is to devote myself to my art. At school, I was trained very well at the foundational level. From the foundation that I learned, I started reading books about European fine arts to learn from famous artists. I read articles about each artist’s life to understand more about the path I have chosen. Later on with technology, I began to use Instagram and Google to look for the best contemporary artists in countries like Germany, the United States and China to understand where the current contemporary art trends are flowing so that I can blend into them and keep my work from being outdated.


Ngang Qua Thanh Dia – Passage Through the Land of the Gods. Oil – 300 x 250 cm

Do you continue to do research and how does this affect the work you are doing?

I am always researching because I am still quite young. I don’t want to stop researching and creating because I will lock myself up if I do. I want to apply the things that I learn and combine them with my creativity and my basic painting skills. Only then can I find what I need.

Do you know where you would like your career to be in the next 5 or 10 years?

I always wonder about this. I believe that just by having a goal, planning with your partners and working in a serious way, I will have good results. I want my paintings to be in international contemporary museums of countries like Germany, the United States, Singapore, etc., and in the collections of major collectors around the world. I hope the work that I can do together with Craig Thomas Gallery will be a great influence for young artists in the country to pursue a career in contemporary art.

Text and Images Provided by Craig Thomas Gallery

Featured image: Su Ham Muon – Avarice. Oil – 200 x 290 cm

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