This conference presentation is a summary of the research published in a Palgrave Communications/Gender Studies open access academic article: Queer art in Vietnam: from closet to pride in two decades, http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms20169
Historically, and in contrast with other Southeast Asian countries, in Vietnam, legal and social constructs had obscured homosexuality, to a degree that caused it to be thought of as non-existent or a foreign behaviour that did not occur amongst Vietnamese people. That perception slowly changed during the 20th century, first through literature, very subtly, and then with art. Apparently in the 1930s, French author Andre Gide’s homosexuality “was an open secret in Vietnam at the time”. Ben Tran believes that Vietnamese writers made oblique references to this destabilizing fact. In the 21st century, there are accusations that the media portrays negative stereotypes of gays and lesbians, however, there are representations of non-heterosexual people, and there is considerable open discussion about homosexuality.
To give a very brief overview of contemporary queer art from Vietnam, I will choose the two artists who I think most clearly express their intentions of defying social norms, censorship and who seek personal expression over social pressure: Truong Tan and Himiko Nguyen.
The decade of the 1990s is considered to mark the beginning of Vietnamese contemporary art, aided in part by the opening of new art galleries and the art market generated by foreign art buyers and collectors. Artists no longer had to produce Socialist Realism and they could to create work unrestricted by state-sanctioned themes. Government censorship was exercised, as it is to this day, along with cautious self-censorship, but some artistic freedoms were gained. Abstract art was no longer banned.
It wasn’t all euphoria, however. The art world had heated debates on a number of controversies. Big innovations are the appearance of performance art in the middle of the decade, and of homosexual content, in the work of Truong Tan.
Truong Tan is the most widely known Vietnamese artist who is openly gay. Vietnamese art critic Bui Nhu Huong calls him the precursor of Vietnamese contemporary art, and many artists in recent years have expressed their admiration for his pioneering role.
Truong Tan’s first painting to show homosexual content dates from 1992. The painting Circus was displayed in a group show in the Hanoi Fine Arts University where Tan was a lecturer. This seems to have activated something in him. ‘My goal was decided’, he says, explaining that he was ready to make evident his homosexuality by showing this work, and that he was determined to forge a career as a professional artist.
Nonetheless, it couldn’t have been easy, because for some time he kept his homoerotic drawings private. There is a reference to restriction in Circus, where we can see that the lower character has his ankles tied up with a white rope. The rope is a recurrent image in Truong Tan’s paintings, symbolizing the restrictions of Vietnam’s conservative environment. From 1994, Tan tied actual ropes and chains around his two-dimensional pieces. More directly, Circus shows a figure that appears to be powerful, controlling and abusive, and one that is twisted, restricted, inverted, powerless. For all the consensual sexual practices that this may allude to, it is striking that Tan’s first queer artwork represents brutal domination. In contrast, many of his paintings created years later show cavorting, loving and playful couples.
At his first solo show in 1994, at the Ecole de Hanoi gallery, Tan tested the waters for public acceptance to content that could be read as homosexual, with an abundance of male figures. Later that year, Truong Tan had an exhibition in HCMC that showed images of erect penises
. The artist thinks this is what drove the authorities to start closely monitoring his work.. Indeed, in a notorious case of censorship, the following year eighteen of Tan’s artworks were taken down from an exhibition in Red River gallery in Hanoi. The news spread quickly. By 1995, the international media was already describing Tan as ‘Vietnam’s only openly gay painter’. A year later, Promadhattavedi commented that in ‘any country Truong Tan’s work would be daring’.
Although Tan has never abandoned painting, he embraced the new medium of performance when it appeared in Vietnam because, like him, it was free from rules and canons. Since it had no local history, there were no entrenched criteria for evaluation. Until the end of the decade of the 1990s, performances would be uncommon events. They were an alternative to situating art within a gallery setting, where there was a higher risk of being unable to show any work that was not approved in advance by the Department of Information and Culture.
In 1996, Truong Tan collaborated with Nguyen Van Cuong on a much talked about performance called Mother and Child (or The Past and the Future). It took place for the closing event of an exhibition in a Hanoi gallery. In this 10-minute event, Tan curled up on the floor, smeared with what looked like blood, and rolled around tormented by Cuong’s broom, which swept Tan around. You can imagine both the political and the queer connotations of such a representation.
Despite his growing fame, low-level, grinding restrictions spurred Tan to leave his institutional job as a lecturer and move to Paris. He arrived in 1997 and discovered feelings of freedom beyond his expectations. His work continued to be known about in Asia. Curator Apinan Poshyananda, thinks that the contributions of Asian artists to critical debates on postmodernism, new media and issues relating to homosexuality had changed the panorama of Southeast Asia’s art by the year 2000.
An artist whose work is much less overt than Truong Tan’s, but for that reason perhaps even more queer, in the fluid sense, is Himiko Nguyen (Nguyen Kim Hoang). She is a multidisciplinary artist whose photographs of women from the ongoing series Come Out (2011) expresses her concerns over a general, public ignorance on issues regarding gender and sexuality.
In a country where naked people cannot be shown in the media, Himiko admits that she has chosen the nude as a theme to try and push the boundaries. She also wants to chip away at some of the prejudices that a national education insistent on condemning ‘social evils’ has built up. Himiko laments the unwritten rules and constraints that she finds in Vietnamese society. Her comments indicate a thoughtful understanding on how national ideology is implemented and how it is naturalised by the general population. Her work, she says, is ‘about gender, about the third sex in a very strict (…) society’. This ‘third sex’ may refer to the three lesbian identities discussed by Natalie Newton (2012).
Come Out is an autobiographical project. Lots of black boxes are mounted on the wall like cupboards. Each box has a hole in the centre for the viewer to look in. Inside, there are self-portraits of the naked artist, often in a yoga pose, softly lit against a dark background. The photograph can only be seen upon pressing a light switch. The visibility that the title itself calls for is thus interactive. The coming out process is a two-way action that requires the help of a viewer who is prepared to switch on the light.
Furthermore, the boxed framing device has the commanding job of channelling the viewer’s gaze to completely reverse the conventional power structure gaze/nude. These works circuitously present images of female desire, where there is no othering of a ‘sexual object’ because photographer, subject and viewer have agency. Hiding nudes in black boxes might be a way of showing of intimacy, or to manifest the situation of being in the closet, of hiding one’s non-normative private life. The boxes are also an effective method of circumventing censorship, something that Himiko has also experienced, much to her frustration.
A newer version of the project, Come Out II, begun in 2014, is larger in scale, a beehive of black boxes, stacked and lined up occupying a whole room. The inference of such a large work is that the action required to elicit a coming out is now more social than individual. It takes a collective to work together and bring light to a hidden issue. The creation of these two versions a few years apart is hopefully a welcome sign of the speed of development in the public discourse on LGBTQ issues in Vietnam.
Outside of the artworld, there are other positive actions. Vietnam’s first Gay Pride parade was celebrated in 2012, the same year that an online sitcom, My Best Gay Friends, debuted on YouTube to become an instant hit. In 2013, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, a founding member of the Hanoi art space Nha San Collective, initiated Queer Forever, a queer art festival in Hanoi that encompasses art exhibitions, conferences and concerts. The festival is growing year on year, and is widely publicised.
To conclude, it seems that since the breakthrough that Truong Tan made in the early 1990s, manifestly queer artworks have been created with increasing frequency in Vietnam. It is not possible to say that Tan’s works directly paved the way for the social changes that have made homosexuality much more visible, but they certainly had an impact within art circles, encouraging other artists to attempt resistance.
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Truong Tan (2010) ‘In the past I was very lonely, in art’. Soi.today, 27 April: http://soi.today/?p=2687.
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 In November 2015, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a law (to take effect in 2017 as part of the revised civil code), by which transgender people will be recognized under the law and have all relevant rights to their new gender. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee submitted a report on the issue, saying that gender reassignment should be allowed to “meet the demand of a group of citizens”, and discusses issues such as marital status and healthcare services for transgender people. http://www.thanhniennews.com/politics/vietnam-recognizes-transgender-rights-in-breakthrough-vote-54168.html & 18 January 2016 – Same-Sex Marriage Ban Lifted in Vietnam But a Year Later Discrimination Remains. The country’s LGBT youth still report ‘serious stigma’. http://time.com/4184240/same-sex-gay-lgbt-marriage-ban-lifted-vietnam/
 Abstraction was permitted from 1990 according to Boitran Huynh (2005: 142), or 1991 according to Nora Taylor (2012: 10), but the first licence granting authorisation for a specific exhibition to feature abstract art was given in 1992 (Kraevskaia 2009: 106).
 Personal communication, 2016.
 The deputy head of the Culture and Art Department says there is not list of forbidden topics, but ‘artists are advised not to show work that opposes the party and the government, or goes against traditional customs’, such as modest attire (Brown, 2012).
 Natalie Newton says that in Vietnam, the les gender is extremely complex, and included three principal genders: B (transliteration of the term “butch”), SB (“soft butch”), and fem (“femme”). However, Vietnamese les delineate SB as a third, in between gender, which is further diversified into “hard SB” (SB cứng) and “soft SB” (SB mềm). Linguistically, les who identify with these genders sometimes bend the rules of normative Vietnamese terms of address or honorifics (cách xưng hô). Newton has found lesbophobia to be a tool used by the state to exert control, though she has seen an appropriation of it on the part of the lesbian community to turn it upside down.
Get in touch with Cristina on twitter: @cnualart or on academia.edu here