Sophie’s Choice: Telling Vietnamese History Through Art
Sophie Hughes is the founder of Sophie’s Art Tour. In both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Sophie and her team lead small groups on a unique journey through Vietnamese modern history as told through the eyes of local artists. Today we’ll learn more about Sophie’s passion for art as a medium of cultural expression and how this experience can deepen your traveler’s exploration of Vietnam.
Tell us a little more about yourself Sophie. What did you do before arriving in Vietnam?
Before coming to Vietnam I worked for five years in art education. I developed programs that utilized art to educate young people and support vulnerable communities. I also established programs in culturally diverse art involving artists from Africa and Asia.
Can you explain what working with art as a “tool for vulnerable communities” means?
Art is an incredible tool for education and uniting communities. We work with youth centers to introduce young people to other cultures through art and to encourage them to think differently about race and religion in predominantly white communities. We also work with refugees living in the UK by helping them use cameras to document their experiences in a new country and feel ownership over their lives.
What brought you here and what have you learned from living in Ho Chi Minh City?
I started working in a contemporary art gallery in HCMC in 2009. I have learned so much living in a country that is not my own; it has been an incredible six years. HCMC is a vibrant and fascinating place but it is also crowded, hot and relentless. One has to find their own pace and take care to spend time finding hidden gems and quiet spots.
Before we get too far in the details, could you explain the difference between modern and contemporary art and how this difference is revealed in Vietnam?
This is understandably often a source of confusion! The term modern art is used to define Modernism, a period of art that began with the Impressionists in 1890 and continued to the 1960s including movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Pop Art. Interestingly many modern art movements were influenced by imperial expansion into Africa and Asia throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly Vietnamese artists were introduced to European styles through French art institutions in Vietnam. Contemporary art is used to describe recently made artworks or artists working now using a variety of materials and techniques including new technologies such as computers.
Art in Vietnam has been deeply affected by a timeline of colonialism, war, communism and globalization. On my art tour we follow the fascinating and changing role of the Vietnamese artist. We begin with craft guild artisans in the Imperial Palace and then move to how modern European art assimilated with traditional Vietnamese art creating a new form of self-expression.
When war broke, the combat artist emerged–artists who travelled with troops documenting the war. Their art became a tool of resistance and revolution. Only recently has the role of the contemporary artist begun to emerge. We are now seeing a generation of young artists observing the great pace of change in Vietnam and communicating this in their art.
What do you want to accomplish with your tour? What do you hope a client will say about their experience?
Vietnam is a fascinating country with a complicated history. The tour is designed to shed light on that history while creating a deeper insight into the culture and personal experiences of those who have lived it.
It has taken you months of research to put this tour together. How does all that effort make your experience special?
The tour is a living research project that I have been working on for the past five years in HCMC and since the beginning of 2015 with a team in Hanoi. The tour is made up of stories we gather from meetings, friendships with artists and from research into academic works and national and international archives. We combine the personal stories within a wider framework of history, taking great care to identify the fascinating connections between the political, public and private lives of a country.
I have a visual mind so when I found myself with piles of research documents, I bought myself a large pin board and visually mapped these pieces of history through little cardboard cut outs connected with string. For the first month or two when I gave tours I was always referring back to this visual map in my head.
You’ve described your tour as a “living research project”, how do you communicate that to your customers?
The tour is a mixture of historical and personal anecdotes that I have gathered along the way and connections I have made. As a living research project, it is constantly changing and being supplemented. Customers see this because I will often start a sentence with “the other day I was visiting an artist and she/he told me a fascinating story about….”
Give us one highlight of the tour to whet our appetites.
In HCMC we visit San Art, a pioneering space that acts as a bridge between Vietnamese contemporary artists and the international art community. They also run a residency program, like boot camp for artists. It is illuminating for guests to visit there as they get a sense of how this generation feels about Vietnam today.
You’ve just started offering your tour in Hanoi, how is the Hanoi tour different from your tour in HCMC?
Both tours look deeply into the development their respective city’s distinctive art scene as well as give an overview of Vietnam’s history. The tour in Hanoi is run by two people: a Vietnamese artist/curator who is also the founder of the art gallery café Manzi and an Austrian writer who runs an online culture magazine called www.andofotherthings.com. Both guides are extremely knowledgeable about the arts in Hanoi and are involved in city art programs.
As you know, Khiri Travel is continuously looking to improve our programs to be responsible tourism operators. From an artist’s point of view, how can we best support Vietnamese artists?
Vietnam has created a roaring trade of art for sale to the tourist market. These artists are paid very little for their work. Perhaps think twice when something is surprisingly cheap. There is also a big market in copying paintings so look around you and if you keep on seeing the same work think about how that impacts on the original artist and the community as a whole.
Why do you feel it is fundamentally important that young people express themselves?
It is vitally important to support expression, as it is holds up a mirror to the world we live in. It offers a real insight into a nation in a state of constant change. While this change may be identified in raging consumerism, influx of foreign brands and lifestyle change, it is art that digs much deeper into the evolving psyche of Vietnam. Currently there are only a handful of spaces supporting contemporary art in Vietnam and artists are often working extremely hard in the face of adversity. Their voices, however, are fundamental to our understanding of contemporary Vietnam.
Lastly, what does the future hold for you? What is your next big step?
I am turning the tour into a graphic novel. This will be a collaborative project working with several artists whose work will illustrate the various stories and chapters in history.