View from the Bitexco Financial Tower in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Ruben Luong for ArtAsiaPacific.

Ho Chi Minh City

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This year’s Reunification Day in Vietnam, on April 30, marked 39 years since the capture of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces in 1975. This event led the following year to the merger of North and South Vietnam and to the city’s new name, Ho Chi Minh City. A decade on, the economic reforms known as Doi Moi (“Renovation”) inaugurated an auspicious era for artists in the capital, Hanoi, emboldening criticism of the Soviet-style socialist realism prevalent in art schools. Sadly, these freedoms proved short-lived, and the artistic movement associated with Doi Moi has faded. 

Today, however, there are encouraging signs for artists in Ho Chi Minh City. The People’s Committee—the city’s executive council—announced shortly before Reunification Day that it will invest USD 477 billion in a ten-year development plan, which includes the construction of a metro system. Are artists in Vietnam’s largest city equipped for the implications of such far-reaching socioeconomic reforms? Can they overcome political obstruction in the decade ahead where the Doi Moi artists could not?

Recently, a young and growing community of local, foreign and Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) artists has emerged, producing cultural, social and political commentaries that tackle issues of historical memory and loss, cultural difference, urban space, power and rebellion. Artists such as Dinh Q. Lê, Tiffany Chung and Nguyen Manh Hung have achieved international prominence, but their efforts to confront complex themes struggle to make an impact in the context of the city’s rapid growth. This is exacerbated by the lack of any designated contemporary art museum, and of formal instruction in contemporary art history in schools and universities, as well as the paucity of anthropological archives for 20th-century culture.

Given these absences, artists today function as “culture workers,” disseminating and challenging ideas, archiving lost or hidden stories, probing society and enacting social change. In a manner reminiscent of art scenes in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in past decades, they have formed collectives, creating workshops and joint exhibits that allow them to collaborate in ways that were not previously possible. For example, eight artists based in the city teamed up in February for “Disrupted Choreographies” at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes, France, to juxtapose diverse perceptions of Vietnamese colonization and history.

Furthermore, the independent art space Sàn Art, in east downtown, galvanized its cultural influence last year with a new artist and scientist collective, Art Labor. Under the direction of artists Phan Thao Nguyen and Truong Cong Tung and curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran, Art Labor integrates visual arts with life sciences by hosting educational workshops. Among its programs is “Conscious Realities,” which examines shared cultural histories in the region through guest lectures and an artist-in-residency program. 

Small art spaces and emerging collectives often classify themselves as design companies or nonprofits to circumvent censorship or bribery from the Ministry of Culture. Stories still circulate of artists and gallerists being followed or questioned by police. On numerous occasions the Ministry has invoked violations to subvert exhibits, such as Phan Quang’s socio-critical “Space / Limit” at Sàn Art last year, at which only two of nine exhibits were approved for display. 

Galerie Quynh, also downtown, has long been the city’s main commercial space. It expanded last year with a second location in a French colonial building near the city’s financial district, mounting exhibitions spanning both spaces. The gallery celebrated its tenth anniversary in April with “Onward and Upward,” an ambitious show featuring 17 influential artists from across the contemporary scene, including Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Lien Truong and Sandrine Llouquet.

In May, Galerie Quynh launched Sao La, a nonprofit operating from the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. Sao La stands in contrast to the latter’s government-sanctioned narratives, providing a tentative sign that contemporary art is receiving a degree of official tolerance. Programming is still in progress, but Sao La already functions as a platform for interactive workshops and an informal space for young artists to develop their practices. 

New collectives and initiatives are right to pursue experimentation as a means of preserving knowledge and increasing awareness in an expanding society. However, there is a real risk that much of the work created may prove too conceptually abstract for a city so weak in arts infrastructure to digest. In addition, more young artists are embracing unconventional media, but require guidance to ensure that such work will resonate with audiences and not be marginalized by government or self-imposed censorship. 

Artists in Ho Chi Minh City are still piecing together the complex realities of their pre- and postcolonial contexts, using them as raw material. Turning to the future, they hope to eventually reunify the country’s past and present, representing Vietnam in a way that the wider world has not yet seen.