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Hue Citadel, Hue City. Image by author

The discourse on arts and craft in Vietnam has changed enormously over the last decades. These changes were accelerated by the effects of the Đổi Mới reforms and the government’s post-war nation-building policies, the urge to catch up with and integrate into the global market, and the responses to legacies of colonial and feudal history. All contributed to the shifting meanings of the terminologies of arts and crafts in Vietnam: arts (nghệ thuật, mỹ thuật), crafts (thủ công mỹ nghệ), artist (nghệ sĩ, họa sĩ), artisan (nghệ nhân, thợ thủ công truyền thống), as well as notions attached to each such as traditional, modern, innovative, authentic. Moreover, these changes over time have generated different nuanced meanings of “arts and crafts” that continue to evolve into the present day.

Huế city is a perfect representative of these debates on arts and crafts. Bound to the symbols of the Old Citadel, Huế has a long and significant history of arts and crafts that connected to both imperial and colonial past. The capital has also been a place of spirituality since its founding in 1802. Meanwhile,  this rich history has also become a challenge for contemporary artists in Hue to create alternative narratives; its independent agency is unrecognized in modern and contemporary art history writing.

Through a re-examination of the historical definitions/terminologies of craft and arts, artisan, and artist, craft workshop and art university through interviews and archival documents, I would like to further explore how the conceptualization and reconstruction of these concepts have affected the way that artists, artisans, and the public perceived the creative process, the production, and the use of art in everyday life, especially through existing and continuing debate on the art-making process for specific contemporary artists in Hue.

My project will also investigate spaces where the knowledge circulation, transmission, and exchange of art and craft took place: artisan’s workshops, artists’ studios, the art university and social gather public spaces such as cafes and restaurants where they hang out in Huế. Choosing three main materials: wood, paper, lacquer echoing its regular uses from the royal courts, spiritual temples to contemporary artworks, I look forward to explore the meanings of the materials in the context of a suburban rural city transformed to a urban structure of Huế.

The interior decoration of the citadel, Hue City. Image by author

In Subnature, David Gissen, author of the critically acclaimed Big and Green, examines experimental work by today’s leading designers, scholars, philosophers, and biologists that rejects the idea that humans can somehow recreate a purely natural world, free of the untidy elements that actually constitute nature. Each chapter provides an examination of a particular form of subnature and its actualization in contemporary design practice.

Borrowing the term of Subnature from David Gissen’s book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (2009) which refers to “environmental forces such as dust, mud, gas, smoke, debris, weeds, and insects” as an essential part of architecture and the environment, I would like to explore the sub-nature elements of site/space that have played a critical role in the material/craft being produced. How it was in the past and how it has changed in the present day considering Huế as one of the cities frequently affected by climate change, natural disasters as well as remnants of the war.

Mapping the citadel mural by a contemporary artist, Hue City. Image by author

The project combines anthropological, visual and textual analysis method to work out between borders of oral history and archival history. It hopes to shed a new way of looking at the past and looking forward to the future and contributes to the lack of art history/ theory writing in Huế today.

The artisans working on lacquer works, Hue City. Image by author