Ethnic artist shines light on human bond with nature

By Linh Do   May 31, 2022 | 05:35 am PT
Ethnic artist shines light on human bond with nature
Painter Dinh Thi Tham Poong works in her studio with art curator Suzanne Lecht in the background. Photo by Catherine Karnow
Painter Dinh Thi Tham Poong still remembers with joy how her childhood in the northwestern mountain province of Lai Chau shaped the artist that she has become.

Though she grew up in a town, her father, a folk culture researcher and ethnic Muong man, would often take her on trips to the forest, explaining to her about all kinds of herbal plants and telling her about legends he had heard as a child from his mother.

"I would stop feeling tired or throwing a tantrum and run after my father to listen to his stories," the 52-year-old sculptor and painter and graduate of the Vietnam University of Fine Arts recalls.

To educate Tham Poong, who was "very naughty," her mother, a white Thai musician and dancer, also empowered the girl from a seemingly endless well of folk wisdom passed down through legends, fables, proverbs, and poetry.

Though she does not remember many of them in detail, Tham Poong says ethnic Thai culture has beautiful stories to address every aspect of human life, from children’s misbehavior to old people’s teachings to lovers’ relationship to authorities’ interaction with ordinary people.

Growing up in such a rich natural and cultural ambience, she has developed a distinctive style that stresses the delicate balance between culture and nature, presenting a wholesome vision of seamless integration between these two often contrary forces.

Considered a "magical realist" by American art curator Suzanne Lecht, Tham Poong weaves a depiction of ethnic people with abstract, geometrical shapes and symbology that evoke a bigger intellectual quest for the deeper meaning of existence, elevating her body of work beyond conventional touristic representation of exotic ethnicities to something more artistic and universal.

One of 20 paintings at the exhibition, ‘Meandering in the Forest,’ is a 2020 work of watercolor and gold leaves on handmade Do paper featuring the painter’s recurring theme of human integration with nature. Photo courtesy of  Art Vietnam Gallery

One of 20 paintings at the exhibition, ‘Meandering in the Forest,’ is a 2020 work of watercolor and gold leaves on handmade Do paper featuring the painter’s recurring theme of human integration with nature. Photo courtesy of Art Vietnam Gallery

Showcasing 18 watercolor paintings on traditional handmade Do paper, a famously durable and light medium that Tham Poong switched to after studying bronze sculpture in college, her latest exhibition, titled ‘Gold in the Darkness,’ reveals a rare painter who treats her ethnic subjects with care.

"Tham Poong is kind of distilling all of her knowledge and experiences in working with these shapes and figures," Lecht, art director of the Art Vietnam Gallery in Hanoi, which is exhibiting ‘Gold in the Darkness’ from now until August 6, says.

"She has come full circle, really depicting just how interconnected we are."

Living each moment magically

For Lecht, who works with many contemporary Vietnamese artists and has known Tham Poong since she was in high school, the latter’s style has grown from a use of primary colors such as red and blue to capture faithfully, and solemnly, the simple lives of ethnic people: their clothes, markets, daily farming tasks, singing, and dancing amid lush natural landscapes.

These days, however, Tham Poong is using a richer palette that includes earthier, brownish pigments made from the rocks and sediments of the Red River, which Lecht says emphasizes the artist’s philosophy about human intertwinement with nature.

She now treats her ethnic subjects more relaxedly, giving them livelier, though still characteristically sculpted and precise forms, juxtaposing these realistic figures with classic geometric patterns (squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, and ellipses) to create a more complete symbology about the magic and mystery of life, Lecht says.

Tham Poong now also makes extensive use of gold leaves, which did not appear on her earlier Do paper works, to give physical light and suggest illumination, love and enlightenment: an alchemist-like transformation of human consciousness.

"You know there is no such thing as separate races and colors and religions. We all are part of one another, of Mother Earth," Lecht says while explaining the exhibition title, ‘Gold in the Darkness.’

The exhibition also includes two lacquer paintings and 11 terracotta or unglazed earthenware works evoking imaginary sheltering places.

For the painter herself, who speaks both the Thai and Muong languages but cautions that she may not represent her parents’ ethnicities, what viewers often find to be a recurring theme about the interaction between culture and nature is personally felt.

"It is like at some moment in your life, you inevitably reach a point of departure, a knot that makes you feel suffocated and constrained, then you want to break free, yearning for something bigger, at least mentally."

She explains the wider tension between culture and nature in terms of humans’ struggle to build shelters to suit their own needs without destroying the surrounding natural landscapes.

She cites the examples of rampant mountain leveling to build houses and dam building to harness rivers for irrigation.

A 2014 painting of watercolor and gold leaves on handmade Do paper titled ‘Dancing with Fans and Geometric Flowers.’ Photo courtesy of Art Vietnam Gallery

A 2014 painting of watercolor and gold leaves on handmade Do paper titled ‘Dancing with Fans and Geometric Flowers.’ Photo courtesy of Art Vietnam Gallery

But she is also aware that eco-friendly alternatives may be too expensive and not yet feasible on a large scale.

"I feel we are acting too violently, painfully. We are lacking in beauty. Beauty is not perfection but a sensitivity to pain, failure, success, and everything in between."

She says she can only try to do her part by living ethically day by day, moment by moment, breath by breath, and draws an analogy with a car driver who makes an effort to skirt around a puddle to avoid splashing a pedestrian on the street.

Bridging the tension

As an artist whose paintings are now part of the permanent collections of many museums around the world, Tham Poong has worked relentlessly to develop a trademark style that Lecht compares to those of two pioneering female artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Sweden’s Hilma af Klint and Mexico’s Frida Kahlo.

Lecht says all three drew inspiration from the riches of nature, mysticism and modern science, and used basic shapes to depict the evolution of human and natural interconnectedness, mixing realism with fantasy, a kind of "magical realism."

More similar to Klint, one of the first abstract painters in the west and whose works were not shown to the public until 2019 or over six decades after her death, Lecht says Tham Poong is unlike the late Kahlo, who is renowned for her surrealist self-portraits depicting the physical pain that she actually went through in life.

Compared to the Hispanic icon, Lecht finds the Vietnamese painter to be more balanced, peaceful and comfortable with herself.

"She has this confidence and inner strength that makes her quite different."

Lecht points out that thanks to Tham Poong’s idiosyncratic style, her works have not been plagiarized by the numerous "copy artists" here.

The artist, explaining her style, says she is fascinated by and tries to reconcile two major influences: Japanese ukiyo-e or woodblock prints and paintings with their exquisitely precise and clear shapes and forms on the one hand, and abstract European art which rigorously blurs clarity on the other.

"Yet, whatever the style, whether it is manifest or dreamy or dazzlingly beautiful, art must captivate viewers or it would be meaningless."

She hopes contemporary Vietnamese artists work more productively and, along the way, renew their old habit of visiting each other’s studios and engaging in vibrant discussions which has lately fallen out of favor.

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