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Meeting a Grande Dame of Vietnamese Art

(No.4, Vol.8,Aug-Sep Vietnam Heritage Magazine)








Sometimes I feel I have the best job in the world. Most people have to pay good money to travel to interesting places. For me, it is often part of the job. My work also involves having to stay in luxury accommodations and consume gourmet meals. I get invitations to all manner of exhibitions and shows. I also greatly enjoy reviewing wonderful new books on Vietnam, from which I learn a great deal and I get real satisfaction from letting you readers know about them. But what really makes this a dream job is that I get to meet all manner of creative and interesting people. The other day, I interviewed a truly exceptional Vietnamese lady who produces the most exquisite and spiritually uplifting works of art. Amazingly, she only took up art seriously after retiring at the age of sixty-five. Now eighty years old, her name is Phi Loan. You might call her the Grandma Moses of Vietnam!
Off I went in the company of Le Thanh Hai, our editor-in-chief, to the leafy suburb of Phu My Hung to meet the lady artist in her flat which doubles as her studio. She lives alone, so there are few distractions. We sat down in the living room along with Phi Loan’s daughter, who with her excellent English took care of any communication problems. The artist looked radiant and young for her years dressed in a gold and brown ao dai. All around the room were examples of her work. The lady herself was full of energy, constantly getting up to seek out an old photo album to show us, make a cup of tea or adjust a frame. Also on the wall were certificates - one from the Danish embassy acknowledging her work and another to commend her anti-American efforts during the war involving that nation.
Whilst Phi Loan now dedicates herself to art, it is clear she was born with the creative art gene. She showed us portraits of family members she drew as a young girl and some silk flowers, with which she used to make a living. However, it was geology that she studied both here and at the Lomonosov University in Moscow. She maintains that studying the colours of stones under the microscope influences her choice of hues, tones, tints and shades of colour in her art. Loan studied painting in oil for a year but reached the conclusion that this was not for her. Instead, she collects pieces of cloth from old clothes and cuts up pieces of colour magazines, always trying to get the most different shades from all the colours of the rainbow. She uses the pieces to make collages. She calls upon inspiration to put together a piece of art without ever making sketches. Once a work is done, she forgets it without dwelling on the creative process. Her cloth pictures remind me of Indonesian batik and her paper works of mosaics. Loan also studied formally in Japan and this is clear in the delicate Japanese characteristics of some of her frames. The artist took a strong interest in a black and white blouse our editor was wearing, eyeing it as potential material for cutting up for her work. In jest, I told Hai she would be lucky to get out of here with her shirt still on her back. Similarly, she looked at the copy of this magazine, which I presented her as a very good source of paper clippings to be turned into her art.
There are three main recurring themes in the work of this artist. Firstly, as one interested so much in the subtlety of colour, it is appropriate that she is very good at depicting flowers. Then she has many pictures of young women and girls in colourful clothing. Prominent here are collages of ethnic minority women, in particular of the Hmong from Loan’s native North Vietnam. Lastly the artist’s love of birds is reflected in her works. I especially loved her colleges featuring that most graceful of avians - the cranes. How naturally graceful they are - the ballet dancers of the wetlands!
Many artists seem to painting more or less the same picture all the time-perhaps in different colours or from differing angles. This is never the case for Phi Loan. Each collage is individualistic despite there being no great range of themes. Each uplifts my spirit and leaves feeling contentment and joy.
There is good news for those of you are in Hanoi. At the end of August, Phi Loan will have an exhibition of her works. It will be entitled ‘Sac Tam’ or ‘Shades of the Heart’ and is the third one of this name. The artist maintains she experiences a wide range of emotions during the creative process. Half of the proceeds from sales will go to a charity for disabled children and Hanoi Studio is providing its space for free for the purpose. The charity in question is the Australian N.G.O. ‘Hands for Hope’ (HFH).
Phi Loan is a contemporary Vietnamese artist and we certainly hope she will certainly be so for many years to come. She is a completely independent artist, a free spirit who follows only her heart. Despite her years, this heart is full of youth and freshness and this is reflected in her frames. Her art is more of the last century rather than the conceptual and abstract work of most younger artists of today, whilst it does use very innovative materials. Phi Loan is above all a natural, innate and spontaneous artist. I hope you get the chance to see and even buy her work and if you get the chance to meet her you will join me in a very honoured club of persons to do so!


The exhibition of the Collage Artist Phi Loan
‘Sac Tam’ (Shades of the Heart)
opens at 17:30 hours, Friday 24 August to 31 August, at Hanoi Studio, 13 Trang Tien St, Hanoi.

 

By Pip de Rouvray
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