Vietnam, it seems, is in the midst of a cultural and artistic awakening, and a piece of it is right here in Dallas, at the Crow Collection of Asian Art. "Changing Identity: Recent works by Women Artists from Vietnam," showing through May 27, is the result of a group of women taking advantage of their country's nascent wave of artistic freedom and using it to explore and express the pressures of being female in a male-dominated developing country. One of the artists' paintings are done only in gray, black and white, perhaps to show the dreary monotony of some women's lives as they stay home and care for others. On the opposite wall, another set of paintings are bold and colorful portraits reminiscent of Frida Kahlo. There is a woman with one eye patched shut, trees sprouting inside her chest with branches doubling as veins and arteries.
Vietnam has long been known for manicured gardens, gleaming pagodas, exquisite silks and intricate lacquer painting, but as described in that recent New York Times story, younger artists are "integrating the traditional into the modern and expressing themselves in new ways that reflect an awareness of what is happening in the Western art world." Take Phuong M. Do, a woman from Ho Chi Minh City whose performance art shown on video at the Crow exhibit is reminiscent of young creatives on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the Lower East Side in New York City. In one video, she walks and slides around a massive pile of silver trays, at times balancing them on her head while confused passersby watch curiously or throw her dirty looks. The point, according to the exhibit explanation, was to show the monotony many women experience as they cook, clean and care for their families.
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The works of artists like Do have only recently begun to be showcased internationally, and the Crow exhibition is the first survey of women artists to tour the U.S. since Vietnam's Communist government decided to allow foreign trade and private ownership in the late 1980s and galleries began to pop up in Hanoi and other cities. Galleries still have to get permission for exhibits, and sexual and political themes are taboo. But Vietnam's art world has come a long way.
One famous artist featured in the Times story, Bui Xuan Phai, is often compared to Van Gogh and Klee. He died in poverty in 1988, but now his paintings are sold for $10,000 and twice that at auction.
Most Americans' perceptions of Vietnam are stuck in the sixties, or in 1975, when Saigon fell and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. But things have changed, and everyone in Dallas has a chance to get a glimpse into the new Vietnam at the Crow Collection. --Megan Feldman