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Created by The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, the award aims to promote the social function of contemporary art in a country where most art is made for tourists and public expression is tightly controlled.

Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai, Black landscapes #2 (2020). Single channel video, colour, sound. Courtesy the artist and The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai was named the winner of the inaugural Artist Excellence Award today.

The award is given to a Vietnamese artist whose experimental practice deepens, explores, and nurtures the ideas, people and places with which it engages.

It carries a cash prize of around US $7,000, which goes towards realising a new work to be shown in exhibitions at The Factory in Ho Chi Minh City and the Center for Art Patronage and Development (APD) in Hanoi.

The organisers of the Artist Excellence Award said they hope it will broaden understanding in Vietnam of what makes art valuable.

That task is made challenging by too few local institutions with knowledge of contemporary art practices, a commercial art market that largely caters to tourists, and censorship of media that's unflattering to the state. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Vietnam ranked 175th out of 180 countries.

'I have been living and working in Vietnam for over a decade and one of the most common responses from potential Vietnamese collectors is that they don't know how to benchmark what they are looking at when it comes to Vietnamese contemporary art,' said Zoe Butt, artistic director at The Factory.

Butt said that the difficulty is shared by many artists focused only on selling their work 'and thus not understanding that message-making in their creativity can be a very rewarding achievement.'

Thanh Mai is different.

Nguyễn Thị Thanh Mai on a field trip in Long An, Vietnam. Courtesy the artist and The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre.

'Thanh Mai's art has shared stories of many different communities that are underrepresented in our contemporary world, ranging from women and children, to soldiers, to stateless communities,' said jury member Roger Nelson, a curator at the National Gallery of Singapore.

Tran Luong, a fellow jury member and founding director of the APD-Center for Art Patronage and Development, described her as, 'a rare artist who silently makes art like breathing.'

Asked about the breakthroughs in her practice that helped her win the prize, Thanh Mai said, 'I think the key breakthroughs in recent years is actually the development of the art community.'

She cites the Nổ Cái Bùm 2020 contemporary art week in Hue as evidence that the Vietnamese art community is prepared to forge its own path.

'Nổ Cái Bùm 2020 was initiated by a group of artists possessing very little resources, from funding, personnel, and space to facilities, and so on,' said 'Thanh Mai. 'But when we started calling for support, we received a lot from both inside and outside the art community.'

'This gives me some hope that the impact of the arts have gradually been expanded and have reached more people,' she said. —[O]

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