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Cafe holds a secret garden of sculptures

(No.10, Vol.2, Oct 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)




Pictures: Wooden statues at Eva Cafe

Beside the town of Kon Tum is a special café. Right at the door, you see a statue. Stepping inside, along every path as you make your way through twists and turns, at every nook and cranny you come across statues. The columns that make up the fence are themselves nine sculptures placed in succession. A procumbent orchid column radiates with sculptural marks carved long ago on its wooden frame. Affixed to the walls of the building are a crowd of wooden faces. The legs of the chairs and tables, too, are formed from sculpture.
The 1,000m2 garden seems like a massive yet forlorn garden of wooden statues. Some sculptures have been eaten away by termites, leaving behind just half a smile or a woman’s bare, fragmentary bosom. Some sculptures are mossy. Some newly carved sculptures are redolent with fresh wood. Other sculptures are incomplete, lending to the sense of a sculpture garden left as-yet unfinished by an idle artist; yet, at times, it seems like an inexhaustible exhibition. Losing oneself there is like losing oneself in the charnel world of the Central Highlands minorities. The folk woodwork usually reserved for the dead and consigned to the periphery of the Central Highlands’ forests, day after day reappears in this space owing to a lone sculptor, who happens to be of the Kinh ethnicity. There are the human faces that have been pushed to the extremes of sadness, happiness, and fear, face that have smiled in hearty laughter, sobbed with crooked frowns, and suffered to the point that their backs went wry, their tongues thrust out, and their teeth fell loose.
Nguyen Ngoc An is now 54 years old and the architect of the sculpture garden. He says that his parents are of the Kinh ethnicity and that he was born and raised in Kon Tum. He says that he was enchanted by the cemeteries of the Central Highlands minorities, who are renowned for wood sculpture. Over many years, he carved several hundred wooden sculptures from the inspiration he culled from those cemeteries.
An graduated from the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University. His English and French skills are refined enough for him to introduce tourists to the local ethnicities’ culture of traditional horticulture. At the age of 28, An decided to ‘retire’ from his job at the Gia Lai Kon Tum Provincial Office of Culture and Information (today, Gia Lai and Kon Tum have since been separated into two provinces) in order to sculpt statues and paint. Captivated by wooden charnel statues, in the decade of the 1990s, he requested that a government tourist company – an agency with a spacious courtyard right at the gate into Kon Tum – allow him to build a park that took the spirit of the charnel houses as its initiative in order to create something unique for Kon Tum city. People did not share his ideas, so the only thing he could do was take his passion back to his home garden. At first, no one dared to go into his garden because it seemed like going into a ‘charnel house’. Now, perhaps fed up with the insanity, malice and pollution of modern life, many people find that places like this sculpture garden are truly the peaceful refuges they seek.

Eva Cafe
05 Phan Chu Trinh, Kon Tum City,
Kon Tum Province; Tel: (60) 3862944

Text and photos by Nguyen Hang Tinh
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