Coffee Chats: Cultural Advisor Nam Thi On The Integration Of Cultural Elements Into Arts | Vietcetera
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Coffee Chats: Cultural Advisor Nam Thi On The Integration Of Cultural Elements Into Arts

Vietcetera met with Nam Thi to know more about the important role of a cultural advisor and his creative capacity in the world of art. 

Nam Thi as a guest speaker during a talkshow at Hoa Sen University.

Nam Thi as a guest speaker during a talkshow at Hoa Sen University.

Nam Thi, a young proactive cultural advisor, has left an imprint on various fields of art. People from film and creative arts seek his advice on visualizing and featuring cultural, artistic, or religious elements in their projects.

If you have ever watched music videos such as Kẻ cắp gặp bà già by Hoàng Thuỳ Linh, Đôi Khi by Nodey with Suboi, or I'm an idiot by JUUN D, you must have been impressed by the layers of artistic materials and the intentions embedded in each scene, all of which are partly the results of Nam Thi’s creative genius. 

With a wealth of cultural knowledge, research, and hands-on experience of practicing contemporary arts, he is capable of delivering unique messages and bringing out new perspectives through his output. 

Vietcetera met Nam Thi to uncover the important role of a cultural advisor and his creative capacity in the world of art. 

What is the role of a cultural advisor in music videos and photoshoots? 

To put it simply, my job is to offer suggestions on culture-related matters such as imagery and content that most fully represent the general spirit of the project. 

A cultural advisor working with the production team of music videos or photoshoots is also in charge of provoking and stimulating creativity in the artists, directors, or even creative directors.

A scene in MV
A scene in MV "Kẻ cắp gặp bà già" by Hoàng Thuỳ Linh, the product Nam Thi worked on as a personal cultural advisor for Art Director Ben Phạm 

The producers would use the culture-related elements to develop initial concepts, then attempt to break the ideas down into details such as imagery and aesthetic factors. 

My knowledge and experience will provide them a firm cultural background to freely generate and express striking ideas but also keep them within the boundary, from potentially and unknowingly exploiting the core cultural values they’re trying to show.

How do you find the most suitable cultural materials for each MV and photoshoot? 

I have to work closely with the artists, MV directors, and creative directors to fully grasp the spirit, context, and core messages of the project for further research.

When working on the MV for Kẻ cắp gặp bà già, a song by Hoàng Thuỳ Linh, I was the personal advisor for Ben Pham - the Creative Director of this project. The MV’s storyline and theme derived inspiration from folk tales and Hàng Trống paintings - a form of Vietnamese traditional woodcut painting. I would collect all information, stories, and ideas radiating from these mediums and suggest them to Ben Phạm’s team for deployment.

In the case of MV for Nodey’s Đôi Khi with Suboi, the focus is on contemporary culture. To fit this modern time frame, every iconic symbol, detail, and cultural image must be carefully selected, preparing the MV Director Anh Phi and 2 stylists - Alex Fox and Tigre - with quality elements to showcase their professional skills. 

What is the process of briefing ideas for an MV or project that contains cultural elements? 

After receiving a topic from the director or a visual idea from the creative director, I would do more research and compile a report outlining some related cultural elements – from western to eastern, from traditional to contemporary.

I sometimes cover the duty of a screenwriter, which gives me more authority to take initiative in integrating cultural elements into the script. Afterwards, I have to present to the whole team why I choose these elements and explain their meanings. Further discussions will continue until we eventually decide whether these ideas are practical to put into the visuals or not.

Nam Thi with producer team of MV Khi tình yêu đủ lớn, a song by Hoàng Thuỳ Linh
Nam Thi with producer team of MV Khi tình yêu đủ lớn, a song by Hoàng Thuỳ Linh

During that process, if there is any doubt about whether our interpretations are too extreme or ruining the cultural value, further adjustments will be taken into consideration.  

Whenever we’re stuck on ideas, our solution is sitting down together, telling stories, giving out a symbol or an exclusive piece of information that ‘only a researcher could know’, thereby seeking more inspiration and firming a solid base on which the initial plan would be adjusted and developed accordingly. 

How to balance elements among your art style, art values, and cultural materials in each project?  

In all of the projects I have participated in, culture is just an additional ingredient, not the main subject. Also, I have no intention of taking part in any reconstruction or simulation project. 

When culture performs a supporting role, embodying more personal styles or elevating the artistry in an artwork is no longer a concern. 

Culture provides me and the team a firm foundation to expand the amplitude in creativity, allowing more creation of new aesthetic values. Plus, the matter of right or wrong in terms of culture is already under my duty. The three elements – personal art style, cultural materials, and art values – therefore always integrate and support one another.  

Nam Thi and his poem | Source: Nam Thi
Nam Thi and his poem | Source: Nam Thi 

In the music video Đôi Khi of Nodey featuring Suboi, viewers may find the story ambiguous and the only medium connecting the scenes together is culture. Nevertheless, viewers’ most popular comment is that however abstract and bizarre the music video is, they could still feel Vietnam’s contemporary spirit in there. 

The fact that Vietnam’s images depicted from a foreign perspective could be easily recognized is a success of balancing between those three elements above. 

What are the pros and cons of being a cultural advisor? 

In my opinion, the novelty of this field is an advantage, especially in terms of producing music videos, movies, and photoshoots. People working in other areas may find this job familiar, but that is not the case for most people in the art industry. 

Competitiveness is absolutely not a matter of concern to me as it has taken a long journey of research and studying arduously to get to where I am today. Culture is knowledge - something that can only be achieved by accumulating information over time.

Also, with the benefits of working experience in international journalism, contemporary art practice, and the youth, I could quickly understand the aesthetic styles and spirits my colleagues are pursuing in this industry. 

The photo collection named “Huyền Học Phương Đông” (Oriental Esotericism) depicting layered meanings of Yin-Yang philosophy, Purple Star Astrology, physiognomy as well as the ancient fortune-telling practice through modern fashion language | Source: L'Officiel Vietnam
The photo collection named “Huyền Học Phương Đông” (Oriental Esotericism) depicting layered meanings of Yin-Yang philosophy, Purple Star Astrology, physiognomy as well as the ancient fortune-telling practice through modern fashion language | Source: L'Officiel Vietnam

I’m always aware of the fact that what I know is just like a drop in the ocean compared to numerous people out there with vast knowledge. However, although an expert could provide the production team a sea of information, the team would sink, struggling to select the right materials for practical use. Then, here comes my job to tackle this challenge.

Speaking of the cons, this is a niche market. The opportunities to produce such music videos or photoshoots are not much, so holding an expectation in financial reward the job could offer is not helpful for your career in the long run, but a passion is. 

For me, I’m always grateful for being able to put what I have learned into practice, or at least proving a fact that knowledge is not just uselessly theoretical, but valuable. 

Which cultural element is underestimated in Vietnam?

There is no actual research to give an absolute answer, so I won’t dare to make a guess. Personally, it’s clear that cultural elements are having a great status and showing widespread influence, otherwise, how could I have the opportunity to display my ability? 

Cultural elements in artistic creativity in Vietnam are undergoing a transition. It is no longer the time of reconstructing and simulating only but of acculturating with other elements. 

Nam Thi as a speaker in a talk show in association with the exhibition “Thuy Nguyen - An Everyday Dream” is sharing his creative activities using cultural elements with the students at Hoa Sen University. 
Nam Thi as a speaker in a talk show in association with the exhibition “Thuy Nguyen - An Everyday Dream” is sharing his creative activities using cultural elements with the students at Hoa Sen University. 

Now, folk music can be combined with electronic sounds. Vietnam’s cultural symbols found in music videos, photoshoots, or social media marketing videos are styled in a way that better suits the modern aesthetic taste and appeals to more foreign audiences.  

Most importantly, we evolve without changing any underlined core elements - human or national values. This shift in art is also leading to a movement in our culture.  

What are your views on the opportunities and challenges this job could bring in other fields of art?

Culture represents a society of human beings through the way we breathe, complain, or how we protect our skin outdoors every day. 

Therefore, aside from art, a cultural advisor like me could contribute to many other fields. 

The challenge is whether those fields could take risks to change in order to create more breakthrough, striking, and bizarre artworks through cultural elements. 

Adapted by Bich Tram