They seem to glide in and out of different social circles with such charming swagger that we wonder: Is the life of an artist constantly filled with discovery and excitement, or is there some gravitas behind the carefree glamour?
Providing insight to this question is well-respected oil painter Bui Suoi Hoa. With over 30 years of experience, she has seen it all — the good, the bad and the unexpected turns of what it means to be a female artist in Vietnam.
A Life Less Ordinary
The daughter of Huyen Kieu, an acclaimed early 20th century poet, Suoi Hoa grew up in a household where her natural talent for fine art was not only fostered but also refined.
She was taught to appreciate Vietnamese culture. Her father routinely took her to see cheo, a traditional form of northern opera. Originating during the Dinh Dynasty, cheo generally consist of archetypal characters, representing the full spectrum of rural life in the Red River Delta. Each performance is filled with vividly-coloured costumes, lively beats and alluring melodies.
“I am constantly inspired by the compassion of cheo’s characters,” Suoi Hoa says. “To me they exemplify the Vietnamese spirit, and its capacity for desire despite the fleeting nature of happiness.”
Suoi Hoa’s commitment to explore the depth of cheo on canvas led to early success in her career. Dubbed one of the leading talents of Doi Moi by Hong Kong-based gallery Plum Blossom, Suoi Hoa became a sought-after artist. When it was still considered a rare accomplishment to be able to travel internationally, she was invited to art residencies and exhibitions across the US and Europe.
Triumph Against the Odds
Fiercely prolific, Suoi Hoa managed to hold her own despite being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Her success was particularly noteworthy in her avoidance of public and private arts associations, at a time when it was an accepted fact that participation was necessary to secure one’s professional standing.
Suoi Hoa intended her works to speak for themselves. Using distinctive strokes, intense colours and bold composition, she created unique imaginings of the Vietnamese landscape and people, imaginings that echo of both introspection and spirituality.
On a personal level, Suoi Hoa is an exemplar of uncompromising independence. In the 1980s, she made a life-changing decision to leave the safe haven of Hanoi for the frontier arts scene of Ho Chi Minh City. She arrived in Saigon alone — a single mother with no money or job prospects.
“It was a struggle to finally secure a lecturing position at the University of Architecture,” she says of those early days. “Fortunately, I was able to sell my works soon after. It was good timing, too, because a year into teaching, I realised I just couldn’t seem to show up to classes on time.”
Giggling bashfully, she continues, “I was worse than the students! Teaching just wasn’t for me. Come what may, painting is my life.”
The Falling Action of Success
The late 1990s was a tumultuous time for Vietnamese art. Demand for contemporary paintings sharply declined. Forgery scandals caused foreign collectors to turn their attention elsewhere.
The residue of this phenomenon can be found across Ho Chi Minh City. Popular hole-in-the-wall shops, particularly those along Bui Vien and Dong Khoi, offer an array of made-to-order reproductions of both Vietnamese and international artists. And while young painters have accepted this as a fact of life, established artists have a hard time overcoming its unfairness.
Suoi Hoa is still weary of consignments. As she is published and featured in collections both abroad and at home, her primary concern is professional integrity. More often than not, the culprits set up a gallery as a front to start their private collection, selling customers high-quality replicas and keeping the originals for themselves — or worse, documenting the series and returning all paintings to the artist, unsold.
“Trust is everything,” Suoi Hoa says. “Artists don’t often get to meet buyers. The difficulties lie not in finding a gallery that will showcase your painting, but rather in finding one that you can build a long-term relationship with.”
For Suoi Hoa, a painter must have more than talent to stand above the pack. To live by one’s art requires an honest assessment of limitations. She admits that her seclusion from public life has notable drawbacks — namely, that the next generation of collectors are currently unfamiliar with her works.
Determined to change, Suoi Hoa is debuting a brand new series of work at the end of the year. Though she is optimistic about finding the right representation for the show, she recognises that financing one’s own exhibition at popular venues, such as the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, can be a good alternative.
And there are other practical matters that artists have to deal with on a regular basis. One of the least talked about is storage.
Suoi Hoa, herself, is a victim of mould. A few years back, she lost some of her favourite works due to humidity. “Ho Chi Minh City is very damp,” she says, “especially during the monsoon season. Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do when it comes to decades-old paintings.”
With everything said and done, Suoi Hoa remains as jovial and youthful as ever. Sipping on a glass of homemade plum wine, she wonders, “What is there not to be happy about? I have the freedom to do and be what I am. In life, I might not have many things — but in my paintings I’ve achieved much.”
Every aspect of her life is in keeping with her philosophy. She wakes up every morning to a large studio, overlooking a breezy, lush garden. While visitors might be wise to arm themselves with mosquito repellent, Suoi Hoa glides in and out of the foliate of bamboo and vines with grace and poise.
With a shimmer in her eye and a pair of garden clippers in hand, she seems, as her name suggests, to be made of suoi (‘stream’) and hoa (‘flower’). Dropping freshly picked tea leaves in a brightly-coloured plastic strainer, she says as effortlessly, “You do not have to constantly paint or sell a lot of paintings to be successful. Life is inherently rich. If you manage to imprint some of your spirit onto canvas, then you have done well.”