Vietnamese artist Nguyen Van Cuong shares his vision of life in today's Vietnam.


Vietnamese artist Nguyen Van Cuong speaks as if it is the power of his luck, and not the power of his art, that matters. "I get luck" in being accepted to the prestigious art university in Hanoi, he says, "because there are many people more talented than me, but I got in."

"Franklin in the Crowd"His art suggests a different luck of the draw at work. Bold and dynamic, his brush & ink paintings combine the fluidity of brushwork with the stark presence of graphic work. They bristle with aggressive symbols of the new Vietnam. Ben Franklin's head appears in the most unlikely places--his famous likeness, of course, adorns the $100 bill (the Asian currency of choice even before the economic collapse) and carries heavy symbolic weight for Cuong. In "Franklin in the Crowd" (1997, ink & watercolor on paper, 32 1/2" x 25") for example, Franklin sits, stoic and well-mannered, in a chair, one arm holding a naked mannequin with her face in his lap, while a host of stylized Vietnamese men literally trip over their words and fall over themselves in their eagerness to get a place at the table at which Franklin sits.

His works repeat certain key images again and again, building up an internal discourse of symbols that are both personal and yet broadly evocative of contemporary urban Vietnam. Another piece, Untitled (1998, ink & watercolor on rice paper, 32 1/2" x 25") portrays naked--decidedly naked, not nude--women with nipples like rubber tubing cavorting in clubs who bend over while business-suited men behind them do their business. A stylized peasant woman kneels in a conventional ritual pose, bows her head to the earth and holds her hands over her ears, as if she is trying to shut out the chaotic and noisy social world she suddenly finds herself in.

Cuong himself is quiet and intense, with bright eyes that shine and take in everything. We talked in the upstairs loft at Pacific Bridge Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, a gallery in Oakland where his solo exhibition "New Frontiers" has just opened. Cuong's English is basic but sturdy, and he speaks with confidence and listens with care as he tells me his story. It's a story that echoes those I've heard from many other young artists in Southeast Asia, and yet is also very much his own.

Born in 1972 in the provincial town of Thai Binh in the North, not far from Hanoi, Cuong is the youngest of six children. His parents worked for the government and retired in the "most difficult period" of 1982, when the economy was very bad. "It was so very difficult to survive," he says in a summary understatement, "it was so very hard to make my dream become truth."

His dream, for as long as he can remember, was to become an artist. He liked to draw as a child, drawing on anything he could find. "I liked to make Ho Chi Minh's portraits very much," he recounts. "And I think I make very well. One day, I make pastel portrait of Ho Chi Minh on the floor. My father come home from work and he was very angry because I draw on the floor."'You must draw on the rice paper and save, put away,' he told me," (Dirtying the floor wasn't the problem. The foot is considered a very low and dirty part of the body in Asia, and to draw a respected personage on the floor showed shocking disrespect.)

His parents were not upset at his dream to become an artist. "My parents gave me a lot of encouragement," he says. "They work hard to save money to send me to art school."

Thai Binh, a town of about 15,000, offered little in the way of art life. There were no museums or galleries, and the few professional painters were "not very good," Cuong says, and brushed off his efforts to get to know them "because I was just a little kid." Art was not taught in the local high school either. However, he bought lots of cheap Soviet art books--the Vietnamese bookstores were full of them, beautifully produced, heavily subsidized books that were part of the Soviet promotion project. "I liked Russian art a lot," he says, although whenever our conversation strays to education and influences, he is always quick to say that "it is very hard to say where all my influences come," and he stresses his desire to be independent in his work.

When he graduated from high school at 17, he headed to Hanoi to pursue his dream. Getting into art school there is not for the faint of heart, however, as the entrance requirements are very rigorous and most students must take special training courses for three to four years to gain the necessary technical skills. Cuong studied for three, and then his luck came through, getting him one of the coveted spots.

Getting in was only a small part of the battle. Cuong struggled for his daily rice as a student, unwilling to ask his retired & poor parents for expense money. "I tried many ways," he says. "First, I play cards for money. But then, I realize, luck for life is limited. If I waste that playing cards, I will run out for later." After many other failed efforts, he met fellow art students Nguyen Quang Huy and Nguyen Minh Thanh, who shared his difficulty and talked together about better ways to survive. "My friend Thanh say, 'We are artists, we should start making drawings to survive. We should live from our art.' So I start making postcards for tourists. This was the time of political opening (1993-94), so tourists start coming in."

That didn't solve his other problem which was boredom at the stultifying art school curriculum. "They teach many technical things at school," he explains, "they teach always what is right and what is wrong. I got bored with that. They always talk about perfect form. About composition, must be like one person standing, one person sitting down, at a little distance from the other." Stimulated by (among other things) books on German Expressionism brought by a German visiting lecturer, exposure to some of the more violent and dramatic traditional Buddhist paintings, and talks with friends, Huy and Thanh, Cuong began "to make something for my own." When he showed this work to one of his younger professors, one he thought would be sympathetic to his attempts to create fresh expression, the professor trotted out the same old stale comments about composition that had been ringing in Cuong's ears as he worked. Cuong did not give up, however, as his own vision had become clear.

He articulated that vision as we looked in a recent catalog at abstract and decorative paintings by some of his contemporaries. "I got bored with beautiful things," he says. "Some artists are looking to find romance and beauty in art that is not there in life. I think that is a bad idea," he says. "Life is not always beautiful."

New Frontiers opened with a reception for the artist on June 19th and ran until the 29th of August.

Sarah Murray is a freelance writer & editor, and a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California completing a dissertation on the Indonesian modern art world. She can be reached at

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