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‘A Gilded Cage’: Saigon Contemporary Art

Often the term ‘gilded cage’ had crossed my mind on the travels throughout Vietnam. How no matter what, it would seem that all I would see was the glorified version of the country. It was an uncomfortable silence that I can’t really explain, except that often I would reflect on if what I studied was correct or if Vietnam was a simple as people described it to be. 

As time passed in the weeks that progressed, and I knew more and more in the field of contemporary art, it began to become more and more so like writing a novel than an essay. Like a writer, I would phase into stages of writer's block and annoyance, but also passion and a blossomed love of my career path.

The thesis spans a total of 40 pages single page with some uses of digital and polaroid images as help to illustrate such. Topics discussed are on Saigon contemporary art galleries, general Saigon Art History from France Occupation to modern day, and contemporary influences on modern art in Saigon, Vietnam.

I will include select sections from the essay, as a small look into the thesis project itself. 

Section 1 :  Gallery Interview

The Factory: Contemporary Arts Centre


Interviewee: Ms Bao

Date: April 21st

Location:  15 Nguyễn Ư Dĩ, Thảo Điền, Quận 2, Hồ Chí Minh


The gallery’s work/ownership is a private collection and non-profit.


The art that is shown is ‘contemporary’- open to many topics, bringing the contemporary art scene closer to the community. San Art is also an educational space- they host the ‘Laboratory’, which is the yearly event of sponsoring 3 artists for a residency where the deliver the art made throughout the time for an exhibition. Once the exhibition goes up, critics and curators come to examine the exhibit so that the artist be seen by professional audience and learn how to improve. She describes how the factory has other forms of being a part of the community than just the gallery. Some examples are things like the reading room, international exhibitions, and an art space for the community to use.


There are no age limits to the artists allowed to exhibit. She elaborates how upstairs there is a small box for proposals for the July ‘Materialize’ exhibit. The gallery will feature artists that have never exhibited their art before. The age boundary is from 25 years old up, as she adds that beginning to practice art as a career has no age limits. For many graduating students from college in Vietnam, there is a need in the art community to support them. A lot of young artists must resort to using cafes or lobby’s of hotels to sell and exhibit their work, which doesn’t look very professional much less help the artist learn how to be keep a stable career in the job field. Thus there is focus is on young local and international artists, and a value for the local population.


The male vs female inequality issue is in essence not an issue. They are both pretty equal in the gallery and in the community. As an example, the current exhibition is a solo exhibit by a young Vietnamese female artist. Many curators in the exhibit following are female. There is the support for all people at The Factory.


Upon asking about the recent closure of 3A station, and the influence of graffiti in the Factory, she mentions of  the artist who was based in 3A station. He is a Vietnamese-French artist that features graffiti artwork. The current exhibition outside at the gallery is his work. She notes how all the galleries and organizations in Saigon are a family, and they support each other. However she speaks to the Station 3A and how it was a more of a commercial gallery for shops/fashion/etc. It was a great space and people miss it, but it was not much of a space for the arts. Great to “hang out and get lost” but “not educational” it did not change art views and culture.


Currently in the city there are 0 art spaces in many districts. In district 1 there is maybe 1 or 2 art spaces. Other districts the defined ‘space’ is a cafe/restaurant, but not a space with a dedicated team to curate.


As far as the ‘Saigon Artbook’, it is a book of usually 5 artists (though this can vary year to year) that are young artists that need recognition for their work (in Saigon). They have had 6 editions of the book, and are coming up to their 7th exhibition. The Factory hosts the artist’s work in their gallery. Most of the artists are local mixed with some international. However, in the last edition, two were forbidden by the government to be shown.


As for the future, they have a 5-10 year long strategy, and it’s complex. In simple terms, they have a plan to open a 2nd Factory near District 1 after 16 months of opening the first Factory in District 2. It’s now been 12 months after opening. They want to do more educational programs, but don’t want to rush it. Money and lack of human resources is always the discussed issue in regard of setting up the second Factory. They are 100% privately funded, 0% funded from the Government. Thus they are still an enterprise and have sites/activities/cafe/bar. The trouble is that it is hard to get money from international funds as the international companies think that the Factory already has the ability to generate revenue (being privately-owned). However she describes that it’s better to be a private company than an NGO in Vietnam. NGO’s are based in Vietnam, but the headquarters are in Hong Kong. She mentions how, ultimately, NGO’s will always be closed down. The only thing keeping them running is the foreign money, and the government does not like money from foreigners.

Section 2: Sophie's Art Tour/A Brief History of Contemporary Art

5. Nguyen Thi Thien Antique Shop


It is with this information that I will now talk about the Nguyen Thi Thien Shop next, which mainly sells antiques since it’s on an antique street. All the pieces of artwork on the walls are by the artist of the same name, who still paints and owns the place till the present day. There are also vintage and craft pieces from all across the region on display in the shop.

The woman was born in 1946 into the midst of the Franco-Vietnamese war. Her father was a communist writer and poet, whose career spanned multiple interests like a bonsai sculptor, actor, and performing artist. She has currently 16 pieces of artwork from the time period described above. However many pieces have deteriorated over time, and many were lost due to her brother selling her artwork in Hanoi and collectors selling other pieces in France.


The owner would paint on anything she could find at the time. One example is a piece painted onto a rice sack. During the Vietnam war, you were not allowed to be free so much in painting off the main battlefronts. There is another piece she created in 1973 that is drawn on to the wood panel from the bottom of dresser drawer. She would find pieces of wood in abandoned homes, then use both sides to paint on top of them.


Her style was very unique and modern, which clashed with the imposed much more classical style. 1969 marks the year of another painting she did for a neighbour, who in the painting is sad and thin, with a child clambering desperately at her breast. This subject matter was strictly prohibited, especially in the north of Vietnam, as the Government did not want people to know of how sad and poor the population was. Even to this present day, the government does not allow you to publish pictures or art of poor/sad/thin Vietnamese people. It is not as strong as the past, but it is still a present-held law. The owner hid this piece at the time.


On one occasion, the artist was caught for another piece, that contained a cubist style and more seductive tones. What is important to know that abstraction and nudity were both prohibited till 1991 in Vietnam. She was summoned, and people advised her to not show fear, so that she would not get into trouble. At the time she just said “Yes” and “Sorry” most of the summoning. Then added a statement like “I don’t know, it disappeared” to excuse herself from the meeting without a charge. Her friend hid and saved the piece, and now it is up in the shop. The piece can be seen in the accompanying picture on this page in the top left part of the photo.


After the summoning she was recommended to create her own style rather than copying known others to decrease the potential of getting caught again.


She also travelled south while there was a rather large Russian population living and working in Vietnam to paint portraits of the Russian people. Then since the Russians typically did not have Vietnamese money, she was paid in luxury goods like tobacco and chocolate to which she and her husband sold in the black market for money.

6. Contemporary Age Intermission

Before moving to the next gallery talk, we move in history into the contemporary age of art, following 1975, and moving till the present day.


‘Uncorked Souls’ marks the first international exhibition with abstract art. Afterwards tourists began to come over and explore the art scene and Vietnam in general. At the time, there was only art and antique shops to cater towards buyers. Due to the large sum of money people could make from the increased tourism, people started to paint copies and reproductions of the famous pieces of Vietnamese artwork. Shops would start making many reproductions of the same pieces, and essentially replace the same painting in the same spot every time one was bought. Some shop owners would come up with elaborate stories of how they came to attain the art pieces to try to prove they were originals. But there was no paperwork, so ultimately buyers could have no inclination to if it was an original or not. Real artists if payed enough, would sign the fakes too. This practice crushed the art market and to this day still is a big problem.


After the Doi Moi reforms, there is not much “art for art's sake” pieces. Locals either didn’t have the money or the knowledge to set up and curate an exhibition.


The real influence comes from the Vietnamese people born abroad who came back to the art community in Saigon and realised that not much was occurring in the contemporary art scene. Galerie Quynh was one of the first to set up a local gallery in the city. The galleries then started to bring Vietnamese modern art to art fairs abroad. This increased the international and commercial scene of the modern arts. It has only been from around the last seven years than any large changes have occurred in particularly Saigon. Originally the art produced in the city was 30% Vietnamese and 70% foreign, but now the ratio is more accurate to being 70% Vietnamese and 30% foreign.


However, some locals don’t go to the galleries as much as now because it’s like an activity that is “too cool” for the average citizen.

It should be remembered though that setting up the art space and maintaining it is still a difficult task in the community. You need to receive a license from the ministry of culture to show work and and receive permission for art shows. (Of which will be heavily discussed in the next chapter of this essay).


The Factory is another contemporary art space example, which is dedicated to contemporary art. Last September (2016) they hosted an art exhibition of 7 artists. However, the Ministry of Culture needs to check the exhibition to approve it to be seen by the public. The time to inspect the artwork is not specified by the government, and can be anywhere from one month to one week before the exhibition is due to either be put up or banned. The day of opening, the ministry came back after approving the pieces before, to ban 2 out of 7 of the artist’s work. This was for one of the artists because the his previous art was “controversial” and for the other artist because one part of his piece featured a man with no helmet on his motorbike. This is not allowed to be shown since it promotes “unsafe habits”. Then the government typically will ask more money to be payed to show the artwork if they find issues. The government tends to have a trend of asking as much money as they can out of the exhibition, especially if they know the gallery/artists are foreign and/or have a significant sum of money.



Ultimately, most of the topics and sources are related to the government in one way or another, like a giant venn diagram. Gender and Development were just the two topics that lie a little more outside the general subject. This was why I took a much more political stance, since the galleries themselves are not the problem in the art community, actually being quite forward along with the west as a career. I believe in many respects from the research that I have done that most of the problems of contemporary art moving forward stems right up to the government.


However, any time I try to ask about why the government acts the way they do, and are not open about moving with the rest of the international world, there is not much of an answer. Most gallery workers, articles online, reports on the government, and books don’t know.


Essentially the government is like an overbearing parent using the “do what I say, not what I do” model. You can’t really put reason to such an action as a kid; just that the parents like to exert their dominance, and don’t want to admit when they are wrong. Their decisions are based on their opinions alone, not necessarily facts. Just like the same overbearing parent, the authorities in charge do not want to admit when they are wrong or have made stupid decisions, as it calls into question of their authority and respect. They must ‘save face’. So it is best to not to disagree with such authorities.


In essence, then asking ‘why’ is pointless since it doesn’t exist in such a dynamic.


Ultimately, when looking into the future, It is a hazy vision which I’m not sure what the contemporary arts scene will achieve, but I know through the community that I was able to connect and talk with that they have the support that would be needed to succeed. It is the question not of what the galleries are doing, but if more people will join the cause, work around the government’s laws, and try to change the public’s perspective on art. This process will take time, but I believe that the contemporary arts will not die out any time with the current people in charge- it’s just a question of how much they will be able move forward.  


This essay is a story, that doesn’t necessarily have an ending, as the government is still in power. But there is burning hope that if more people become aware and support each other as a team, the government can not exert his power as much as if the Vietnamese artists were all alone in their battle for freedom of speech and to create.

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