What is ̣Đổi Mới in Art?

Nora A. Taylor, Ph.D., School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The term Đổi Mới, meaning literally “new change” and commonly translated as “renovation,” denotes the economic reforms adopted by the Vietnamese government in the late 1980s. Recently, it has come to signify change in all sectors of Vietnamese society. Much like the terms Glastnost and Perestroika employed in the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, Đổi Mới has become synonymous with détente, liberalization, open-door policy and freedom of expression. However, using the term Đổi Mới to define a period of radical change in Vietnamese culture bears the assumption that economic opening automatically leads to other kinds of reform. While this may have been the case with the collapse of the Soviet Union, one may question if the adoption of a market economy in Vietnam has necessarily translated into a radical refashioning of the arts considering that the political system is still in place. Unarguably, the arts have changed as a result of the emergence of a capitalist art market but it is important to ask whether the use of the term Đổi Mới is necessarily applicable to these art market changes and whether the term extends itself to all modes of expression and cultural production from music to literature and art. What does it mean to talk about Đổi Mới in the arts? Is it a style of music? A literary genre? A period in art history?

Most authors writing about art refer to Đổi Mới in its historic sense, as a defining moment, a time when the government changed its policies toward the market, in other words a significant historical event. In this way, it has become common place to use Đổi Mới as a milestone, the beginning of a new era. One easily refers to the then and now, the pre- and post- Đổi Mới as the difference between communism and capitalism, isolation and open-door, repression and creativity. When scholars first came to Vietnam to study contemporary Vietnamese society in the early 1990s, they were interested in the “new” Vietnam, the Vietnam that opened its doors to the West. This was certainly the case in the arts with the earliest writing on contemporary Vietnamese painting such as Jeffrey Hantover’s essay in the catalogue that accompanied one of the first post- Đổi Mới exhibitions of Vietnamese art outside of Vietnam, Uncorked Soul. In that essay he quotes a Vietnamese author who says that “originality and diversity had begun to replace the “monotony of collective, and more or less academic presentations.”1 He wrote that “Đổi Mới has promoted creativity in the plastic arts…Painters can (now) paint what they choose.” For social scientists too. Đổi Mới signaled the end of socialism and the beginning of globalism. As Jayne Werner writes, “globally, Đổi Mới links and integrates Vietnam into the capitalist world order, a process which has been called “globalization.”2

In the early 1990s, it was as if all writing on art centered on this image, the allegory of the once repressed and now suddenly free, liberated and liberal, Vietnam. Most critics and observers of Vietnamese art discussed Vietnamese paintings in these terms; it was as if all art reflected this fundamental change in society. Regardless of the theme or content of a painting, Vietnamese painting in the 1990s was about unleashed creativity, free expression and open emotions. Red buffaloes, street scenes, self-portraits and underwater life, were popular subjects and all bore the qualifier of Đổi Mới whereas, portraits of Ho Chi Minh, propaganda posters and farmers in the field, popular subjects in the 1970s and 1980s were seen as signs of the old regime, repressive and autocratic. Articles that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, for example, often centered on the reform process, the lifting of the iron curtain, the “modernization” of Vietnamese society. One such article followed a group of artists and poets. The journalist covering the story saw every move, every gesture by these artists and writers as indications of reform. As she witnessed their meeting in a café, she wrote “There was nothing subversive – or even unusual – about this gathering of Vietnamese artists and intellectuals… Nevertheless, this clubby, art-filled afternoon testifies to the liberalizing effects of Đổi Mới.”3 Outside observers thus saw all Vietnamese citizens as participating in a Đổi Mới process.

When studying contemporary history, it is easy to judge current events as having a significant impact on society especially when they denote a break from the past. And since one only has the past with which to compare the present, rather than the future, it is natural to view what is happening today in reference to the past. But what happens when we move ahead 20 years, do the events that we saw as transformative then look the same or do they look rather tame now? Or vive-versa, what if what we overlooked as run of mill, in retrospect, was instead radically different, progressive and revolutionary? So, what does Đổi Mớilook like in hindsight? What if we compare what is happening in Vietnam today with 1986? If, as Jayne Werner says, 1986 marked the era of globalization in Vietnam, then what would you call what is happening today?

1986, Turning Point or Fictional Year?

Whereas most historians stop the clock and mark their timelines with the date 1986 as the turning point in Vietnamese contemporary history, for art historians, this date may not have any real significance. Officially, it was in 1987 that the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Community Party issued a resolution to “renovate and enhance leadership and management and develop creative power in literature, arts and culture."4 But many changes happened earlier, and later. Bui Xuan Phai, for instance, one of the most celebrated figures among Hanoi artists, and often cited as an underground or unofficial painter, was given his first one-man show at the end of 1984. For many artists in Hanoi, that event was significant enough to prove that all artists eventually receive proper recognition for their life work, and this did not happen in 1986, but two years earlier. For other artists, an even earlier date, 1975, was the pivotal year for change when the war ended and they were able to meet their colleagues in the north or south for the first time since the colonial era. The art historian Boi Tran Huynh, certainly sees 1975 as having a bigger impact on Vietnamese art history than 1986 and marks her timeline accordingly. But, she sees 1990 as a more significant date for change. As she says, “The reform policy of 1986 did not bring about change, until the subsidized economic system finally collapsed in 1990.”5  I include myself in this classification scheme. In my own writings, I have emphasized the need to see post-war period as more significant than “1986.”6

Anthropologists such as Philip Taylor also see 1986 as a less definitive milestone. After all, change occurred from the bottom up and reforms were institutionalized long after they were put into practice.7

 He is also critical of what he calls Đổi Mới discourse. As he states “Casting doi moi as a revolution in interpretation (of socialism) rather than conversion (to capitalism) paralleled the logic of the Reformation, as perhaps distinct from the European Enlightenment. In this mode, the past was not comprehensively dismissed, for the canon of Marxist-Leninist thought was ‘renewed’ by more faithful interpretation.”8

 In 1986, artists who wanted to sell their works still had to meet clandestinely in cafes and exchange their paintings and drawings under the table, literally, in exchange for a few bills of foreign currency, rarely dollars. Dang Xuan Hoa, for example, once related how he and his friends would meet foreigners, Belgian health care workers or Swiss diplomats at the home of Duong Tuong. They would then agree to go to a certain café and drop off their work or feign to forget it at a given table where an envelope with some money was waiting for them. In 1986, most artists belonged to the state sponsored Vietnamese Art Worker’s Association, Hội Nghệ Sĩ Tạo Hình. The only art gallery where artists could show their work was the government owned space on 16 Ngô Quyền street. Private galleries did not open until 1990. In 1986, it was still forbidden to exhibit nudes and abstract art. Art books in 1986 were still printed on newsprint. Color reproductions were rare. Art book publishing was reserved for the printing of national exhibition catalogue or monographs on the designated national treasures, artists who fought in the resistance against the French and helped shape national imagery.

In 1986, however, and not coincidentally, Nguyen Quan was named editor-in-chief of Mỹ Thuật (Fine Art) magazine. Nguyen Quan (b. 1948) had begun to gain some recognition as an art critic, writer and painter in his own right. He studied mathematics in East Germany during the war and studied painting on his own. He never went to art school. Under his editorship, the magazine that had famously published guidelines for artists to paint “national sentiment” Tinh dân tọc, was now featuring articles on Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Salvador Dali. He enlisted like minded friends to join the team of art writers and critics, including Thai Ba Van and women artists Dang Thi Khue, Do Thi Ninh and Mai Sang. Looking at issues that date from 1986-1988, it appears there were very few articles on Vietnamese artists. The magazine seemed to feature more articles on international art and art historical movements in Europe than anything Asian or local. A few scattering of articles on Dong Son drums or Ly Dynasty temples appeared but very little on young emerging artists. This may have caused the artists’ association that governed the publication to oust Quan and his team in favor of an older war time artist in 1988. So, while the magazine appeared to open the doors for art and introduce the art public to a variety of art forms and expression, two years later, the magazine returned to publishing articles about war heroes, the Khóa Kháng Chiến (Resistance class) and Soviet Socialist Realism.

In 1989, after leaving his editorial post, Nguyen Quan collaborated with Phan Cam Thuong, a young graduate in art theory and history from Hanoi University of Fine Arts on two publications, Mỹ Thuật của Người Việt, Art of the Viet, and Mỹ Thuật ở Làng, Art in the Village.9 While these publications may sound like redundant nationalist histories of art, they, in fact, departed dramatically from previous publications on the history of art in Vietnam. Both publications trace the history of Vietnamese art to the village. Instead of drawing historical lines along the dynasties that ruled the country, the authors locate the sources of Vietnamese creation with the people and the villages, outside of the imperial sphere. This view of art history did not necessarily coincide with official views. Rather, they corresponded to the resurgence of village traditions after decollectivization. As Shaun Malarney documented in his research on the revival of village festivals after Đổi Mới, control over religious rituals loosened as the private economic sector began to thrive. That is, as villagers began to acquire more individual wealth, the demand for certain festivals and rituals increased and the State had little influence in controlling them.10

 As he explains, “cadres could, through surveillance and innovative roles for officials in funeral rites, but they could not control the participants’ application of their own meanings and ideas about proper organization to the ceremonies. Vietnamese state functionalism foundered on the vain hope of controlling an inherently ambiguous phenomenon.”

The early 1990s saw an amplification of village craft traditions such as ceramics and basketry, paper making and lacquer. As the economy prospered, so did the demand for luxury goods. After decades of state controlled collective factories, families that had created goods for centuries prior to the revolution could return to their crafts. The context of Quan and Thuong’s books lie in the rejection of the state in favor of family run artistic production. Their books, therefore, were far from promoting a nationalist view in the state sense but rather, promoted a return to village artistic production. Their art histories were as patriotic as previous studies, they simply shifted the power of production from the government to the people. This idea, in many ways, was mirrored in the kinds of paintings that were being made during this time. Village temple scenes, domestic objects, references to puppetry and folk tales were subjects that became increasingly popular as private enterprise began to rise.

1987 may have been a pivotal year in the official registry of culture as it marked the date when a pronouncement on the arts was made, however, the reality of the state of the arts was slightly different. Naming Nguyen Quan the head of the official art magazine may have been an indication of the loosening of restrictions in art but his replacement with a more conservative editor two years later showed that the cultural authorities were not ready to liberalize quite yet. Similar situations had occurred decades earlier in colonial and post-colonial debates over art for art’s sake versus art for society as well as the controversies surrounding the 1950s publications Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm when artists were punished for speaking out too freely but only after several issues had already been published.11

 In other words, it did not take a decision to be made by the state for artistic reform to take place. Nor was the decision necessarily the trigger. Rather, it merely signaled an authorization like any other for certain artistic forms to be recognized.

Changes in the arts often have taken place outside of the state system before they were acknowledged by the state. This was also the case with economic reforms. As Benedict Kerkvliet and Hy Van Luong have argued in regards to the decollectivization of agriculture and commerce, it is often when a system fails, or production levels drop that the government considers experimenting with alternative policies. As Kerkvliet and Luong documented in villages near Hanoi, communal farms and enterprises began to see drops in production levels already in the late 1970s causing serious economic hardship and concern for the party.12 These difficulties occurred as the Soviet Union withdrew its economic aid and China launched military threats on the borders of Vietnam. The state was forced to look into methods of increasing production and came up with plans for gradual decollectivization.

Artistic Reform, what, how and when?

 It is convenient to use the term Đổi Mới to explain what appears to be a significant transformation in society at large. In the arts, the perceived change in style and form might be as much in the eye of the beholder as a reality. Sources and origins of change in artistic styles and movements are not easily documented. Certainly, when artists chose to follow a certain course, they may do so deliberately and consciously, and for a variety of reasons. Often, however, changes occur unconsciously, inadvertently or as a result of other changes, namely social, political and economic. Because of Vietnam’s political history, it is assumed that artistic changes occur along political lines only. But this may be a phenomenon of perception. A perception that changes have occurred when they may have not; wanting to see change in art when change has only taken place in society. Conversely, when change does happen it is not recognized because the change is not as visible. While there was a shift in policy toward the arts in 1987, artistic styles may not have changed as dramatically as the policy. Furthermore, policy shift did not bring about immediate change in the arts. As scholars have documented real changes occurred in the 1990s or perhaps even more recently, and some have argued even, that not enough change has occurred. But what kind of changes are these scholars talking about?

The changes described as occurring as a result of economic reform tend to be more about the context for art making in Vietnam than any stylistic or thematic changes. While some paintings do “look” more expressionistic, it could be argued that the overall style of Vietnamese painting did not vary dramatically from one year to the next. All artists have their own signature, and styles vary from artist to artist. Some artists painted in ways that could be read as “expressionistic” and intimate prior to 1987. While others continued to paint in ways that could be interpreted as conformist and academic after 1987. In other words, one cannot argue that all art changed as a result of economic reform. However, the context did. As artists were able to sell their works in galleries and find a different patron for their sales, some of their choices of themes and styles may have been influenced by the tastes of their clients. Styles began to change more visibly perhaps only in the 2000s when video, performance and installation became more popular. Vietnamese art writers also saw the year 2000 as a more definitive measure of for change as two publications appeared early in 2000 on art in the 1990s.13

Historic and stylistic changes are perhaps easier to document than changes in discourse and thinking about art. That is where the appellation of Đổi Mới in the arts becomes more problematic. If one thinks of Đổi Mới as political reform in the sense of open and “free” expression, then one would have a harder time documenting its implementation and reverberations. Many artists today, in the year 2008, continue to challenge cultural authorities in trying to express their views more openly. Exhibitions still require permissions from the Ministry of Culture. Some 20 years after the onset of reforms, the government still regulates the public display of artists’ works. It is more difficult to articulate how art has changed under Đổi Mới from this perspective, when the regulations in regards to artistic expression are still in place. While artists are able to create a vast array of works without scrutiny, the iron curtain has not lifted entirely. There are still sensitive issues pertaining to the rules for displaying works in public that have prompted some artists to affirm that Đổi Mới in the arts still has not taken place. 20 years ago, no artist was making that claim. The 1987 pronouncement had given artist the impression that they had free reign over the artistic field. Outside observers wrote numerous essays believing that all art in Vietnam was presently about free expression and that the government lifted all restrictions on creativity. For these observers, journalists, curators and art critics, art under Đổi Mới was irrevocably open and free. But the policy of Đổi Mới was written with 1980s criteria in mind. And written with local audiences in mind. Authorities could not have predicted the changes that were to take place in the future and therefore did not write their statements about the arts in relation to avant-garde, pop, graffiti, performance or video. When they wrote about expanding the horizon of creativity, they meant adding more color, allowing for abstraction and surrealism to enter into the national artistic vocabulary. They did not intend for artists to create sculptures that, albeit elliptically, portrayed the police as corrupt and the government as inept.


Can one say that the 1990s were about Đổi Mới? Yes. But they were not about reform. Art in the 1990s, or what we might call, the immediate post- Đổi Mới period, was about trying new things, getting oneself known, opening up to the rest of the world. There was experimentation but reform in the sense of renovating the ways in which artists practice and exhibit their works inside the country is still underway 20 years later. The 1990s, however, are crucial in the process of reform. In terms of content, art in the 1990s may not appear so radically different from the styles and themes that were prominent in the 1980s or 1970s. Bui Xuan Phai’s streets from the 1970s or even Dang Thi Khue’s cubist painting of a wounded soldier from the early 1980s seem at home amidst Dang Xuan Hoa’s household objects from 1994 and Tran Luu Hau’s flowers. As they should be, before the 1990s, artists only had one another to emulate. Most artists were oblivious to contemporary art movements elsewhere. For this reason, Vietnamese art in the 1990s appears today as a complete antithesis to what was happening in the rest of the world. In 1991, while Jeff Koons was exhibiting provocative images of himself and his wife in a New York Gallery, Nguyen Quan was causing a stir in showing his porcelain like surrealist images of female figures. While art critics in Paris were heralding the end of art, tourists in Hanoi were enchanted by the neo-expressionistic landscapes of Vietnamese painters. Color and abstraction seemed new in Hanoi and that was cause for celebration. Just when the rest of the world had given up on figurative art, painting made a brief comeback in the form of Vietnamese art.

1990s Vietnam were not about reform or change from within, but about the outside world paying attention to Vietnam. Once Vietnamese artists caught up with the rest of the world, however, 20 years later, art began to change more radically as sources of inspiration and contact became more diverse, immediate and far-reaching. Change and “reform” has accelerated due to the internet and artist travels. Today, looking at art from 20 years ago, one can still sense the newness of the 1990s. But, one also senses that real change is yet to come.

  • 1. Jeffrey Hantover, “Contemporary Vietnamese Painting” in Uncorked Soul, Hong Kong: Plum Blossoms, 1991, p. 33
  • 2. Jayne Werner, “Gender, Household and State: Renovation (Đổi Mới) as Social Process in Việt Nam,” in Jayne Werner and Danièle Bélanger, eds., Gender, Household, State: Đổi Mới in Việt Nam, Ithaca: Cornell University SEAP, 2002, p. 30
  • 3. Sally Goll, “Art in the time of Đổi Mới” Far Eastern Economic Review, 7 May 1992, p.36
  • 4. Summary of World Broadcasts, BBC, as quoted by Esta S. Ungar, “Media and Society: Sociocultural Change in Vietnam since 1986,” Dean K. Forbes, et al., Đổi Mới: Vietnam’s Renovation Policy and Performance, Canberra: ANU Department of Political and Social Change, 1991.
  • 5. Boi Tran Huynh, “Vietnamese Esthetics from 1925 Onwards,” Unpublished PhD Doctoral Dissertation, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, 2005
  • 6. Nora Annesley Taylor, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • 7. See Philip Taylor, Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam’s South, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001
  • 8. Taylor, op.cit., p.61-62.
  • 9. Nguyen Quan and Phan Cam Thuong, Mỹ Thuật của Người Việt, (Art of the Viet) Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House, 1989; Nguyen Quan and Phan Cam Thuong, Mỹ Thuật ở Làng, (Art in the Village) Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House, 1990.
  • 10. Shaun Kingston Malarney, “The Limits of “State Functionalism” and the Reconstruction of Funerary Ritual in Contemporary North Vietnam, American Ethnologist, Vol. 23, No.3 (Aug.1996) p.554.
  • 11. Hue Tam Ho Tai, “Literature for the people: From Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics,” in Truong Buu Lam, ed., Borrowings and Adaptations in Vietnamese Culture, Manoa: University of Hawaii, Southeast Asia Paper no.25, 1987; Hirohide Kurihara, “Changes in the Literary Policy of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, 1956-1958,” in Takashi Shiraishi and Motoo Furuta, eds., Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s, Ithaca: Cornell University Press SEAP, pp.165-193.
  • 12. Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, “Village-State Relations in Vietnam: The Effect of Everyday Politics on Decollectivization” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (May, 1995) pp.396-418; Hy Van Luong, “ Wealth, Power and Poverty in the Transition to Market Economies: The Process of Socio-Economic Differentiation in Rural China and Northern Vietnam,” The China Journal, July 1998, pp.61-93
  • 13. Bui Nhu Huong and Tran Hau Tuan, Hội Họa Trẻ Việt Nam thập kỷ 90 (Young Vietnamese Painting) unpublished manuscript, 2000; Bui Nhu Huong and Tran Hau Tuan, Hội Họa Mới Việt Nam Thập kỷ 90 (New Vietnamese Art in the 1990s) Hanoi: Fine Art Publishing House, 2001.