“She is a rare artist who silently makes art like breathing,” were the words of curator and artist Tran Luong during the press conference and online award ceremony on August 12th about Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, who has just had the honour of receiving the first Artist Excellence Award.
This biennial award is the effort of The Factory and its co-sponsors: ROH Projects (Jakarta), the Chu Foundation (Hong Kong); supported by the Nguyen Art Foundation, and co-hosted by Center for Art Patronage and Development (APD), who worked together to honour Vietnamese artists whose creative practices are not only limited to the studio, but also positively contributing to the local community and social context around them.
This year, the jury committee who determined the winner included: Dr Roger Nelson (Art historian / Curator, National Gallery Singapore), Arlette Quynh Anh Tran (Curator, Director,Post Vidai collection), Zoe Butt (Art Director, The Factory), Tom Tandio (Director, Art Jakarta Art Fair), and Tran Luong (Curator, Artist, Founding Director of APD - Center for Art Patronage and Development).
From the 8 artists nominated (Tuan Mami, Mai Nguyen Anh, Nguyen Phuong Linh, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, Nguyen Huy An, Vu Ngoc Duc, Tran Tuan, Luong Trinh), Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai was the one who made a lasting impression on the judges through her sense of social responsibility and emotional connections to the communities she collaborates with.
There are many reasons why this year’s Artist Excellence Award (AEA) went to no other than Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai. One of them, in the words of historian and curator Dr. Roger Nelson, is that Mai’s works have helped gather attention on the stories of underrepresented communities in contemporary society, from experiences of women and children, soldiers, to displaced people with no country to call ‘home’... Through her work, we have the opportunity to see them in a new light, a light that rekindles compassion and drives change for the near future.
In addition to her ability to work on diverse media forms, her concern for such communities has been the red thread throughout Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s relentless journey of contributing to the arts over the years. Once again, with Vietcetera, let’s relive Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s journey through her thoughtful reflections.
Having worked on so many art projects with multiple communities, is there one particular project that holds a special place in your heart, that compels you to continue working on it?
It would have to be the project where I worked with the Vietnamese community in Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Their history is very special: in the face of adversity, from war, genocide, deportation, discrimination, being undocumented, illiteracy, to poverty… they persisted and still had hope for a change that would happen to them. I also want to see that change.
In early 2014, I had the opportunity to stay at Sa Sa Art Project, based in the White Building, Phnom Penh. Stumbling upon an article about a floating fishing village where Vietnamese children lived and studied, I visited the village. That trip gave me the opportunity to hear many stories from the elderly; those stories gave me the inspiration to go deeper with this community.
Since then, I often visit the Vietnamese community that lives in the fishing village. They are clusters of families, dependent on each other’s help to pull boats, pull nets, and always having to move. Every time I go there, I see children being born, growing up, seeing their fates uncertain and ever-changing -- I never know where they’ll end up.
I just want to continue to be involved, not necessarily to make art out of their experiences but rather to follow along with their journey. I see a lot of changes happening there, and I want to know what that will lead to.
What ‘fuels’ you during this journey - one that requires persistence?
Creating art with different communities provides me with opportunities to approach people, to understand, empathize with them and reflect; this then means that I am able to perceive myself in a broader context of our current world.
I remember during a visit to South Korea, through a Facebook page of the Vietnamese community, I found a village in the northeast region. There, I was accepted to work with other illegal workers from Vietnam and Thailand. Our job was to harvest and process peppers, apples, beans, ginseng… whenever any farm in the village needed us, our boss would take us there.
On the first day of work, in the middle of the day, a strange man drove me and another woman away. The road was long and unfamiliar, full of rocky mountains with no houses around. We didn't know where we were going, and we didn't know what to ask or say because we didn't know the language. I could only think of the many stories I’ve heard of workers being abused and exploited.
At that moment, an invisible fear gripped my heart and refused to let go... until I saw the streets, houses, and the other boss gave me a bag of milk and a cake to eat. This experience showed me the dangers and risks such workers have to face when they are in a passive and vulnerable situation.
I can never forget the feeling of waking up at 4 am, standing around a well with other workers brushing our teeth in the cold. My feet hurt so much that they felt like they were cracking due to frostbite…
So for me, the destination of every artist in creating art is not the result, but the experience. Experiencing being out of the familiar world, meeting different people with entirely different lives. That is what helps me better understand the multiple layers of this society.
Have there been times where you’ve wanted to stop?
Of course! That feeling comes up a lot. Because of all things, working with people is the hardest -- because people are complicated. Especially when working with communities, I face a lot of problems from being an outsider. I suffer from a burden, which is that I can only observe, not participate.
I see injustice happen but I have to accept it as a part of life. I don't have the right to say that, even if I want to. I can't change it. I can't make any impact. And I have to accept the fact that I am different from these communities.
That is a huge challenge for the artist because sometimes I will feel helpless, feeling that my life as an artist makes me an extremely useless person. And many times I still wonder if I am helping society in any way, or am I just deceiving myself?
When I started this work, I was very confident that I could help bring out the voices of vulnerable communities. That is also my motivation. But when I started taking on more projects, there were times when I truly doubted myself.
In those moments, what makes you keep going?
There are very small moments that make me stay. Like in 2010 when I made a short film ‘Ngay qua ngay’ (Day by day), then I showed it to the family living in Cambodia. At that time, their whole family gathered and watched it while discussing enthusiastically and laughing. Both children and adults loved it. They talked more about seeing themselves, seeing each other in the movie. They were excited about it.
But two years ago, when I went to visit them and showed them the film again, the children had already grown up and gone their separate ways. Everyone knew this day would come. So then, they watched the film and they noticed the changes. Both, inside and out. They felt scared and sad. At that time, we started to relate to one another.
So understanding people, and learning about people, are motivations for me to continue.
In your opinion, why is it important to show your works to the public?
In my practice, there are times when I feel stuck. It feels like walking around in a forest, not knowing where it starts and where it ends. In those times, meeting someone: a curator, an artist, a friend, a stranger -- is like a light that guides you, or helps you see that you're not alone.
So when you bring your work to the public, you are creating a space for open dialogue so that the artist has the opportunity to hear feedback and discussions around their work.
During the 'Day by Day' exhibition in Sa Sa Bassac, Phnom Penh, many young spectators came to see my exhibition and asked a lot of interesting questions. It shows that they are really concerned about the political, social, cultural and artistic contexts of their place of living.
Some audience members shared that they knew the Vietnamese community as a strong community in Cambodia, but they did not know of the Vietnamese community in Tonle Sap, featured in this exhibition, even though they lived not far from their place of residence. This gave me an excitement that my project is taking the story and voice of that Vietnamese community further than it was before.
What do you think defines an artist?
I think it’s hard to give an exact definition.
At the beginning of my career, I really didn't think that I would be able to become an artist. At that time I had nothing: no money to do the work, no one knew who I was, no invitations for exhibitions, no direction in locating sources of support, and no clue on how to write an artist profile. And I was still in a small city where there were not many galleries and exhibitions to see, to study.
But I am fortunate to inherit a foundation from the trailblazers before me. The foundation was made up of the efforts to build a contemporary art community: from Le Brother's New Space Art Foundation, the Open Academy of Veronika’s artists group, Nguyen Minh Thanh, Nguyen Minh Phuoc, Saigon Open City, to San Art Laboratory... These practices, meetings, exchanges, discussions with friends of artists and predecessors have helped me learn and mature.
It is difficult to give an exact definition of what makes an artist because each person will have their definition, and their different path. But to become an artist, to have the opportunity to reach the public, to bring my practice to the audience, to go further, to learn more… that takes a lot of luck, sharing, and support from the community, which also helps shape the next generation of artists.
Translated by Dieu Linh