Nghia M. Vo
         I had the chance to attend the painting exhibition entitled Changing Identity: Recent Works by Women Artists in Vietnam held at the Stedman Gallery, Rutgers Center for the Arts in Camden, New Jersey between September 4 and November 21, 2007.

         This is a small University gallery about 30 by 30 feet which is nicely decorated with exhibits from 11 Vietnamese artists. Two of them are Vietnamese American photographers (An My Le, Phuong M. Do) and a third artist (Dang Thi Khue) exhibited hanging shawls that are characteristic of the Hanoi region. Of the remaining eight painters, only two are from the South.

         Since this is my first encounter with a Hanoi painters' exhibition, I did not know what to expect. Although there was diversity in the program: hanging shawls, masks, photographs, and paintings, I came out somewhat disillusioned about it. Was this feeling due to the paintings themselves or the selection of the paintings or both? It is hard to say although selection may be one of the problems.

         The show curator is Dr. Nora Taylor, an articulate Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art, Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She holds a doctorate in Southeast Asian Art History from Cornell University. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary Vietnamese painting and author of Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art (Hawaii 2004). She has studied for some time in Hanoi.

         Looking at Dr. Taylor's past, one has to be impressed by her credentials. If credentials are not a problem, guests' disenchantement with the program may be related to her choice of painters. As a scholar, she might be more interested in showing us the "multiple faces of Vietnamese society and the diversity of artistic expressions" rather than the beauty of the artistry itself. That may explain why the exhibition did not convey to me at least a sense of originality, strength, and experimentation.

         Dr. Taylor has decided to focus on women painters because they paint life as it relates to them and in a sense they are painting themselves for themselves. Male painters tend to paint abstract objects or heroic topics. The exhibition is not balanced as far as regional distribution is concerned as mentioned above. Therefore it is not representative of Vietnamese arts in general. Had it been listed as "Hanoi women artists" instead of "women artists in Vietnam", the title would be more appropriate. When asked about the regional imbalance, she stated that she was more familiar with Hanoi painters since she had studied there before.

Hanoi artist Vu Thi Hien in front of her exhibit

Nguyễn Thị Châu Giang: He is inside of me, 2002
        Please read the rest of the story in REMEMBERING SAIGON.