Why you should care
From gender roles to sexuality, a growing band of Vietnamese female artists is challenging norms, sparking conversations that could transform this conservative society.
In a 10-minute video titled Dream II, multimedia artist Pham Hong, dressed in a white wedding gown, chews betel leaves, an essential part of every Vietnamese wedding. Slowly, red juice from the leaves starts flowing down her chin, and her white dress turns red. “Betel leaves signify tradition,” says the 34-year-old, as she fiddles with her copper and jute bracelets, before delivering the punch line: “Eating the betel leaves to the point of self-pain is symbolic of how marriage can become a cause of suffering.”
It’s a bold statement in a country where public discussions on women’s identity, empowerment and sexual rights are rare. But Hong’s work isn’t a one-off. She’s among a growing band of independent female artists in Vietnam using art in all of its forms — performance, sculpture, painting, installation and multimedia — to reshape conversations long seen as taboo in this communist-ruled country where President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un notably are meeting today.
Multidisciplinary artist Himiko Nguyen’s ongoing photography installation Come Out II in Ho Chi Minh City consists of independent boxes containing nude portraits of herself and other women, and is aimed at challenging mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. In her interactive performance titled Encroaching Space, 35-year-old Anh-Thuy Nguyen invites audiences to walk through a room, where she acts as an obstacle and observes how others look at her body. Ly Hoang Ly’s installation artwork and performances deal with menstruation and breastfeeding. And at a Hanoi cafe last year, curators Dinh Thi Nhung and Duong Manh Hung ran a two-week exhibition titled Lip Xinh, which focused on the vagina and people’s relationship with it.
For decades, Vietnam’s art galleries held only commercial exhibitions of silk, oil and lacquer paintings showcasing women in traditional attire, working in the fields or in Viet Cong uniforms fighting American soldiers. Now, as the country slowly opens up, that’s changing too, helping these female artists. Five years ago, only foreign-funded art spaces such as the Goethe-Institut and L’Institut Francais de Hanoi, and a handful of private art spaces including the Nha San Collective, Six Space and Salon Natasha, exhibited offbeat art. But since 2014, at least 15 contemporary art galleries and cafes, such as the Factory Contemporary Arts Center, Salon Saigon, MOT +++ and the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, have come up in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to offer space for experimental work.
I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it.
Anh-Thuy Nguyen, Vietnamese performance artist
Both the artists and these new public spaces have faced censorship. But they’re pursuing the push for change they’ve started, and their work, experts say, could transform broader gender equations in Vietnamese society.
“The work of these artists is crucial to shift discourses of gender and power in a political setup where gender equality is strongly guaranteed by law but feminist questioning of social power structures is not encouraged,” says Shweta Kishore, an art curator who teaches media and communications at Ho Chi Minh City–based RMIT University and is exploring the work of contemporary female artists in Vietnam for a project titled In Art as in Life.
There’s no word for “feminism” in Vietnamese, and these artists don’t overtly call their work feminist. Historically, Vietnamese literature has had feminist themes, such as in folklore that mentions the heroism of two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who, riding on elephants, drove away an invading Chinese army. The 18th-century poet Ho Xuan Huong spoke up for women’s rights. During French rule in the 1930s, women advocated for gender equality in newspaper columns. Later, the Vietnam People’s Army allowed female soldiers to fight against the U.S. In 1986, when the Communist Party of Vietnam launched “doi moi” (economic reforms), it gave women the chance to be financially independent, but there were also government campaigns to re-domesticate them. Curators say Vietnam’s artwork reflected this feudal thinking. And while in the 1990s, some female artists like Dinh Y Nhi, Nguyen Thi Chinh Le and Dinh Thi Tham Poong did challenge the norm, they remained only a handful of individuals, and the country’s art landscape wasn’t supportive.
For sure, the female artists trying to drive controversial conversations through their work face challenges even today. In Vietnam, there is still almost no commercial market for them. Some of them exhibit their work in the U.S., Thailand and Hong Kong, where they are paid when their work is on display at major museums. Occasionally private collectors purchase their work. But many need second jobs to sustain their art. Hong works as a designer. Anh-Thuy Nguyen teaches in the department of visual arts and photography at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.
Then there’s censorship. Exhibitions that don’t comply with the government’s set parameters of promoting “good cultural and moral values” are not allowed. In 2016, San Art, a Ho Chi Minh City alternative art space, had to discontinue a residency program because of increasing government scrutiny. Himiko Nguyen’s Closer, a nude photography exhibition, was shut down by authorities in 2006. Publishers self-censor too. The cover of an upcoming book by visual artist and writer Nguyen Thuy Hang had to be changed because the image she wanted to use, of two naked women holding each other passionately — a painting titled She by Hanoi-based artist Ly Tran Quynh Giang — was considered “too sexual” by the publisher. “This painting was banned by the government even 10 years ago,” says Hang. “It’s funny that the government’s approach toward art has not changed in one decade.”
To get around censorship, Nhung didn’t seek government permission for her exhibition on the vagina. Many artists simply call their exhibitions “private events” to avoid government scrutiny.
But unlike the previous generation of female artists who tested boundaries, the current set is finding support from public spaces willing to host their work. “Alternative art spaces play an important role because conventional art galleries and museums would be either commercial or state-funded, which are still limited to propagandist art,” says art curator Do Tuong Linh, who co-runs Hanoi’s Six Space gallery. These art spaces finance themselves by hosting the work of other mainstream, renowned artists too, for which they charge a fee. Vincom Center is funded by its parent company, Vingroup, founded by property developer and entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong.
These women have also benefited from international exposure those before them didn’t have. The alternative art galleries invite international artists, and some Vietnamese artists have won international residency programs at the Art Institute of Chicago or Singapore’s NTU Center for Contemporary Art.
Slowly, Vietnamese society is accepting them too. More Vietnamese women have come forward to pose for Himiko Nguyen’s Come Out II project as compared to Come Out I in 2011, she says. “On one hand, these women inside the boxes are in a closet; on the other hand, they have liberated themselves by posing nude,” says the 42-year-old. At Nhung and Hung’s exhibition on the vagina in 2018, ordinary people turned up to share their stories and experiences — unimaginable a few years ago.
The work of these artists is helping “provoke new questions about women’s role in society, outside their identity within family relations or as economic units,” says Kishore. Anh-Thuy Nguyen, for instance, uses her body as her device to test her audience. “A woman’s body is often being claimed by others,” says the artist, who splits her time between the U.S. and Vietnam. “So I want to use my body as a powerful material, to reaffirm my possession of it and to examine how others view our body.”
The artists know these conversations are tricky. But that’s precisely why they must not be avoided, says Hong, the multimedia artist. “Conversations must go on, even if these are uncomfortable conversations,” she says.