There is a certain dream-like quality to much of the work by contemporary Vietnamese artist Mai Anh. But it is a world in which silence dominates. Occasionally it is pleasantly meditative, but often it is filled with a deep melancholy and the anxiety of waiting.
During the past decade, the number of active Vietnamese women artists has increased significantly, with a few beginning to forge international reputations. Their role in the
contemporary art world is, however, still considered by many to be of somewhat less importance than that of their male counterparts. It will take time and perseverance to
change this attitude, not only to art made by women, but also their generally inequitable position in society.
An artist such as Mai Anh, 41, to some extent, exemplifies the position of Vietnamese women artists and their struggle to secure appropriate recognition of their contributions
to the art world. While many male artists have a tendency to venerate women and objectify their percieved beauty, Mai Anh's themes more often than not address a much more
realistic condition in many women's lives, one in which they are often alone with their children, working in the fields, waiting for their partners to come home. These solitary
figures are constrained by a traditional value system in which the woman's place is seen to be at home with her children, giving solace to the family, and providing emotional
sustenance when needed.
Although very aware of the condition of women in society, Mai Anh is not entirely receptive to a feminist position, for she does not wish to politicize her role as a woman and
an artist in contemporary Vietnam, nor does she overtly seek sympathy for the protagonists within her work. Her work is her objective statement and the viewer must draw
from it that which they may. Mai Anh, who is a reseved but determined woman, expresses opinions that would offend many Western feminists of even the most liberal
"I don't really care about the question of being a female artist in Vietnam. It is the work that matters, the making of paintings. My family is important for me. That is the
says Mai Anh.
"I consider doing housework as a way to relax. It is not hard. It is simple for me. House-work is easy. It is painting that is hard. When I am doing housework, I am
always thinking about what I am doing in my art, what I am trying to say. My paintings are certainly about Vietnamese women and their work and their destiny. The woman
waiting for her husband, for example, or taking care of her children. Only Vietnames women can wait so long, I think. I don't know why I don't paint men. Perhaps that my
work in being devoid of men is an unconcious criticism of men."
The dream-like quality to Mai Anh's work is the result of her choices of themes and subjects expressed in dimly lit and minimalist manner. Many of her strongest individual
portraits and interior scenes are dominated by murky settings and brooding colours of varying hues such as browns, dark greens, black, and reds. With the interiors there is a
sense of foreboding, aided both by her colour tones and the sparse backdrops, which add to this anxious dream like-quality.
The brooding pieces of solitary individuals are unsettling in their directness. The sense of emotional strain and the constraints of solitary life are etched in the faces and in the
stillness of their postures. In her portraits - some of which suggest a Modigliani influence - Mai Anh's style emphasizes the solitary and thoughtful nature of her subjects. In My
mother (2000) the black-haired, creamy-skinned, dark-eyed face with the merset touch of make-up stares out into the distance, the eyes cast away from the viewer, a
sense of longing in her gaze. These is a certain stoicism written in the protagonist's face, a sense of sadness, even weariness. This emotional longing is frequently seen in
Mai Anh's mother and child portraits which many people might find overly sentimental. But in such works, Mai Anh's skill in presenting her subjects objectively diminishes the impact
of any sentimental content.
These characteristics are comon features in Mai Anh's art practice, even in her works which feature children as in Breakfast (2000), where the solitary child sits holding a piece
of food, her gaze turned from the veiwer as if listening to someone nearby. The Young Moon (2001) features a young woman with her back to the veiwer, her sleek
upper back bare, her long black hair swept forward over her shoulder. There is perfect stillness in this work, even a touch of sentimentality as it is implied that the young
woman may be in love and hence is gazing with longing at the distant moon half hidden behind clouds high up in the right hand corner of the painting.
The most intense demonstration of Mai Anh's view on Vietnamese women is to be found in her interior works. Her fierce concentration on dark palette is stiking for it creates just
the right sense that her true intent is the expression of the inner world of her subjects. It is not the black mood of desperation she sees, but the more insidious malaise of
quiet despondency that inhabits the mind of someone who waits interminably for emotional release. The colours are as much a protagonist in Mai Anh's brooding narrative as the
people or the location. In Long Day (1999) the solitary, barefoot woman is slumped on a chair, her head resting on her right hand that is grasping the top of the chair's back.
Her eyes are closed in sleep. Her slack posture is saturated with tension. There is a sense of utter tiredness. Beside her is a simple table on top of which is a wicker basket for
covering food. The empty chair at the table speaks eloquently of sadness and of a missing person, the husband one surmises. In Sunny in the Garden (2001) the woman with
her back to the viewer stares languidly out of the barred window of her room. The figure, with its slightly rounded shoulders, dominates the work. The woman seems unable
to move, trapped by circumstance, weighed down by expectation. The bars suggest that she is caged, separated dramatically from the joy she sees outside her window.
Where the figures in Long Day and Sunny in the Garden are the actors in their own drama that is visible to all, in Aspiration (2000) the personal drama is off-stage, removed
from the jumble of shoes and the empty bookcase that fill the painting. Here these is the expectation of family, of activity, but it is suggested that it is not being realized, that
is the jumble of shoes that reflects the world of the home.
"The face of a person can be smiling but it might not be their reality. What one sees is not always what is. We might look sad but we may be very happy. Our faces are
masks behind which we hide our emotion. A veiw from behind can express the truth as in Sunny in the Garden or The Young Moon," says Mai Anh. "The fate of Vietnamese
women is to suffer."
It is in understanding that Mai Anh is not concerned with beauty itself but what lies behind it and within it that we achieve a fuller comprehension of her truth. In doing so truths are
slowly revealed in her work. What Mai Anh has achieved is, as the artist Le Huy Tiep has noted, a body of work which is "changed with sympathy and compassion," an oeuvre
that is of the spirit, of a sense of morality as expressed through the individual's loneliness and longing and not through the group or the family.
But Mai Anh's work is not only about women. Like so many Vietnamese artists she also paints the land and the sea, as well as scenes from the marketplace. There are the single
figures and couples in the landscape bent in toil, women walking on the beach, women fishing or rowing across the river or harvesting. But unlike Mai Anh's portraits and
domestic scenes, the figures are even more impersonal. The landscape and their individuality making them anonymous entities who are essentially at one with their
environment, and to some extent controlled by it. The sense of the solitary that one sees in Growing Rice (2001), Alluvial Land (2001), and Early Morning on the Beach (2000) is
also filled with longing. But not all of Mai Anh's landscapes have people, often there is merely a suggestion of life going on somewhere in the distance. In these works, heavily
influenced by impressionist art, Mai Anh is concerned with the presence of nature, of the land as a protagonist, as a monumental presence in our lives that dwarfs our humanity.
The smallness of the figures against the land reinforces the suggestion of human irrelevance within nature.
Mai Anh is extremely conscious of her use of colour. Indeed it is central to the very success of her art, unlike that of other artists whose concerns lie with line and form. For the
most part dark colours dominate Mai Anh's work, although there are abstract market scenes such as Countryside Market (2001) and beach scenes where there is a brighter world to
be seen. Through her colours she expresses pain and sadness, loneliness and desire with eloquence. But there has been a change in recent years as she has achieved a
calmer and more assured sense of herself as an artist.
"I used to paint with dark colours," she says. "there are now changes in the colour. I am beginning to do much lighter works that suggest perhaps that my future is brighter.
My colours certaintly reflect my life and feelings."
"My colours develop as I work. I stand a long time with the white canvas and I allow the colours to emerge through my emotions as I decide the subject and the structure of the
work. I don't prepare my work through sketches. I decide the structure of the work and the colour quickly as I paint."
Mai Anh was born into an intellectual family in 1961, in Thanh Hoa, some 160 kilometers south of Hanoi. In 1999, after a decade of working in business "to earn a living," Mai
Anh moved to Hanoi. She was inspired to start painting again by the chance reading of an article about a 78-year-old woman who had learned to paint.
"I thought then that I was too young to give up painting."
Although she produced a lot of paintings as a child, she had little experience of the wider art world before she studied at Thanh Hoa Fine Art College. Given such a narrow
experience of art the influences on her own life and art are suprisingly varied and represent styles that are so very different from her own. Among the most important are
those of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Polish-American painter Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), the eminent Vietnamese painter Nguyen Sang (1923-1988), and the
Hanoi woman artist Kim Bach. Each of these artists strikes a very different chord for Anh.
"In my childhood I did see a lot of painting which influenced me to become an artist. As I became older and studied, I wanted to choose my own way,"
says Mai Anh.
"I love Van Gogh's way of painting and the work of impressionists. As a woman I like the art of the painter Tamara de Limpicka. Her art is of its time. I like the way she
expresses herself in her work. It is free of stress. I like the freshness and brightness of her art. It is as if she is looking out at the world from a dark room in to the light. And
her work is filled with longing and it is exotic. It is something of another world, but I can recognize what she is saying in her painting. The art of Nguyen Sang and To Ngoc
Van have both influenced me. Nguyen Sang's art is special to me. His colours are very special and so is the content of his art. To Ngoc Van's work has touched me
emotionally, as has the work of Kim Bach, an old woman artist who lives in Hanoi and is now over 70 years old. I like her spirit, the simplicity, and morality in her work about
women, and the daily activity of Vietnam and of the War. Mostly the way I enjoy other artists' works is emotionally, and not so much the technical aspects of their art."
Mai Anh is quietly emotional and determinded. In her impressionist/expressionist
she goes her own way, mining her memories and her experience and observing the rituals and concerns of women around her. Although her paintings may seem at times to
be the anguished narrative of the solitary and the lonely, one discerns a certain hope, a brighter day. Mai Anh is thoroughly embraced by the challenges of making art.
"When I paint,"
"I feel as if I am in a dream, only focused on the work itself."