Le Thien Bao

To survive, traditional arts must be connected to our time

In the last 30 years since “Renovation” (1986), urbanization and societal changes have coated Vietnam in a layer of modern makeup. Many thought that the convenience and attraction of modern entertainment technology would gradually replace traditional arts in people’s spiritual lives. Contemporary artists are proving otherwise.

“Mi Chau’s World” by Tran Kim Ngoc

In early 2018, Tran Kim Ngoc’s contemporary play “Ho Nguyet Co hoa cao” (Ho Nguyet Co turns into a fox) was introduced in Ho Chi Minh City. Young people filled the Soul Academy auditorium. It was the first time a Southern audience had the chance to experience music, movements, and expressions bearing the trademarks of the North’s tuong (a form of traditional Vietnamese theater), combined with orchestral music written by Kim Ngoc for five European classical instruments. The show was complemented by artistic videos.  In her creations, traditional arts are equal to contemporary performing arts, film, and music.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country – Hoi An, Hoang Thanh Vinh Phong has long been studying the glass painting techniques of Hue. This type of painting is thought to have originated in China and been imported into Vietnam under the orders of Emperor Thieu Tri (1804-1847). The art form made a strong impression on Vinh Phong as a child. The subjects of these paintings kept him up at night. He wondered why royal fine arts only record prosperity and tranquility. In a collection named “Tranh kinh” (glass paintings) (2014-2015), he used the reverse glass painting technique to recreate regal scenes and images of the American-Vietnam War, inspired by photos taken by Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and Philip Jones Griffiths. These violent scenes were displayed in jackfruit wood frames bearing the sophisticated designs of artisans from Phuoc Tich village. At first glance, they look just like traditional glass paintings. “If they were hung inside the citadel surrounded by old architecture, people would see them as real glass paintings. I wanted to surprise visitors,” explained the artist.

“Glass Painting” artworks (2014-2015) by Hoang Thanh Vinh Phong

Tran Kim Ngoc and Hoang Thanh Vinh Phong are not the only creative artists in Vietnam to use traditional materials in their work. In recent years, people have been introduced to designer Trinh Thu Trang’s 2017 project inspired by Hang Trong paintings, “Hoa Sac Viet” (Vietnamese Colors and Patterns); and musician Ngo Hong Quang’s 2019 album “Nhin lai” (Looking back), in which he merged the essence of ca trù (a form of Vietnamese traditional singing) and the sounds of the Central Highlands with Phan Le Ha’s contemporary poems.

The Vietnamese art traditions that still exist today were influenced by the arts of the Cham, Chinese, Khmer, French, etc. Contemporary artists are not conservative, but are continuing these traditions, creating a dialogue with Vietnamese audiences thirsting for guidance, not merely entertainment. As the artist Kim Ngoc said: “Art should not lower its standards to exist.”