A Nhu The artist of the forest

(No.6, Vol.7,Dec 2017-Jan 2018 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Artist A Nhu and his painting
Photo provided by Hong Thuy Tien

A painting by artist A Nhu
Photo: Lai Huu Kim

He manages to remain so elusive in this age of global connection through IT, cell phones and the internet. In this era of flattened world and greatly reduced distances, differences in geography, lifestyle and customs become even more prominent, and meeting this ‘surreal’ character, who lives a hermit-like life with a quiet and modest but no less zealous passion for the game of colors becomes even more urgently desirable.
He, A Nhu, the artist of the forests, son of the Xe Dang, son of the majestic Ngoc Linh mountain remains so unassuming even though he is the very first ethnic Xe Dang artist to have his paintings exhibited in Tay Nguyen region and around the country.
Under the bridge of Dak Mong Village, Dak Tram Commune, Dak To District of Kon Tum Province, his rustic wooden house looks painted by time. The tall slim man with high forehead, deep set eyes, gentle smile and long hair coiled in a bun behind his head immediately evokes a warm sense of good will and trust.
A Nhu was born in 1957 in DakbLai Village of Tu Mo Rong District, behind the pass of Falling Bamboo Shoots (it’s so rough that the bamboo shoots fall from the highlanders’ back packs,) a Gate to Heaven away from where he lives now.
His birthplace is truly the most desolate district of Kon Tum Province, in the deepest recess of North Tay Nguyen, at the foot of Ngoc Linh mountain, the highest (2,598m) in the Truong Son range.
These details of his background explain the sense of deep origin and the vibrant non-awareness that flicker in his paintings which intensely reflect the everyday life of his own people, their spirit, community and customs amongst the paddies, mountains and forests.
As a child he began drawing with black charcoal from the kitchen and little twigs. This innate talent, this exquisiteness could perhaps build up and flourish even more had that incident not happened. The fiery summer of 1972, in the frying pan of Dak To – Tan Canh, battles raged in his rugged native land under heavy rains of bullets and bombs, and ‘stray’ bomb shrapnel cut away his golden right hand. He had but the left hand left to hold the painting tools.
A Nhu revealed, ‘For a long time I had nightmares, screamed and started in my sleep. I had difficulties in everything I did, had to learn to do everything. Sometimes I thought I was disabled and just wanted to cry...’
A blessing event changed his fate. In 1977, artist Xu Man of Bahnar ethnicity, a massive figure in the highland art community, in a trip with his students looking for real life inspiration, has discovered A Nhu, a young man with great passion and talent.
A Nhu followed his teacher Xu Man to the vocational school of the then Gia Lai – Kon Tum province and studied there from 1977 to 1983.
Since then he discovered different aspects of the kind of art that he wanted to pursue. Initiative and creativity that came out of his loving heart have blown spirituality and spine into his every brush stroke.
Living in desolate mountains, how did he manage to feed almost a dozen mouths and at the same time pursue what they call the ‘aristocratic’ game of the art world?
He laughed - it’s the land and the forest that took care of everything. Life is rough, and after so many years he amassed only less than a hundred paintings.
He shared, ‘I used all the support money of the Association of Literature and Arts to buy colors and canvas. In those times I worked with joy and inspiration. I use mostly oil, but oil is so expensive I can hardly afford. When it runs out, I use water color to satisfy my addiction. A personal exhibition is a beautiful dream, too expensive that the thought of it alone makes my heart sour...’
How could it not be sour! In his less than twenty square meter dwelling, dark and low, beside his paintings there are only certifications of merit and plaques of appreciation. Even those are so valuable that he hangs them in the best spots on his walls.
The recognized achieve­ments of years of dedication and contribution to the arts helped A Nhu’s talent glow bright. A member of Kon Tum Association of Literature and Arts, he has been admitted to the Vietnam Association Ethnicities and Vietnam Association of Literature and Arts.
Many of his paintings are hung in the Offices of the Vietnam Association of Literature and Arts, Association of Fine Arts, and even in Vietnam Museum of Arts.
Stepping out of the forests and being social brought him chances of joint exhibitions, and his works got more exposure to art-loving audiences. And they, the fans of his art have also bought his work, as a show of appreciation and encouragement. But that is just like a grain of salt dropped in the sea, and he, the poor artist, has to postpone his projects to earn a living for his family.
Passionate and dedicated to his art, A Nhu wants to travel and paint more, but tied up by poverty, he can only express it in austerely sad, longing eyes...
Many things move people, making them think and cherish. What I am describing is not just a portrait of a character or a model of resilience and perseverance.
I have seen lively cultural features in strong, simple and confident lines and fresh, exuberant colors in his, artist A Nhu’s paintings.
Artist A Nhu – the talented left hand painter – the son of Tay Nguyen mountains and forests goes on quietly and diligently creating and recording images and cultural features of his Xe Dang people, unmistakably recognizable, boisterous and modest, simple but not simplistic, unaffected but affectionate – just like his own artistic personality.

By Hong Thuy Tien
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