Couple spends half a century embossing life into art

By An Binh   May 11, 2020 | 01:43 am PT
Two seniors in Dong Thap Province has been preserving the Mekong Delta's centuries-old embossing technique for over 60 years.

In a small house in Tan Phu Trung Commune of Dong Thap's Chau Thanh District, Ho Van Tai and his wife Nguyen Thi Bach Thuy are busying making tranh goi vai, a form of Mekong Delta embossing popular during the previous century.

But the hands of the 84-year-old husband and 77-year-old wife are not as flexible as they once were while their sight has blurred with age.

Sipping a cup of hot tea, Tai said the art form was founded by his teacher Tran Van Huy, also known as Thuy Tien, from Dong Thap's Sa Dec Town.

He added tranh goi vai was originally used in portraits for worshipping purposes. Later, it was popularized during weddings, celebrations, and housewarmings.

Ho Van Tai holds up a tranh goi vai artwork depicting Dong Thaps countryside. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

Ho Van Tai holds up a tranh goi vai artwork depicting Dong Thap countryside. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

According to the artisan, tranh goi vai is a combination of art and crafts. The artist starts from drawing an outline on a piece of paper, then uses cotton to shape the main subjects that include people, animals or trees before layering cloth, brocade or silk embroidery to create a realistic look.

Meticulously using each layer of cotton to shape a buffalo, Thuy said: "To follow this profession, passion is not enough. It also requires perseverance and patience. Like in this picture of a buffalo, I have to carefully set each layer of cotton on top of one another to ensure a flat and smooth surface that provides a sharp and realistic feel to the object."

Her husband stated each artwork can take over 10 days to complete, depending on the size, and that it's very challenging to portray images of people and objects using silk.

Tai was born into a peasant family. But at a young age, he showed a strong artistic temperament creating landscape, animal and life paintings. In 1956, at 16, he took Thuy Tien's class and later decided to quit school to focus on studying tranh goi vai.

When his teacher moved to Saigon, Tai followed to finish the course. After four years, he opened his own art shop called Truc Lam.

A silk artwork called Truc Co showing two storks. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

A silk artwork called Truc Co shows two storks. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

During its golden age, Tai's shop had lots of customers since tranh goi vai was very popular at the time. After, he married and passed the job on to his partner. However, she took on the role of an "ancillary" and assisted mainly in fabric wrapping.

The couple later moved back to the southern province of Dong Thap due to the chaos of war. Meanwhile, tranh goi vai gradually disappeared, though they decided to retain the profession.

Tai's artworks are still favored by customers from Vinh Long, Can Tho and Kien Giang provinces in Mekong Delta to those in central regions.

After more than 60 years, Tai and his wife have created over 3,000 artworks that represent a cumulative brainchild of hard work, creativity and enthusiasm.

Currently, each completed work, embedded in a glass frame, costs between VND1-30 million ($43-1,280).

Tai (L) and his wife working on a tranh goi vai artwork. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

Tai (L) and his wife bring a tranh goi vai to life. Photo by VnExpress/An Binh.

"This type of art requires students to have genuine desire and passion, strong perseverance and will power," Tai shared.

He added many people actually study tranh goi vai but soon give up, including his six children and grandchildren, all occupied in other fields.

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