Octogenarian Pioneering Vietnamese Artist Receives First Solo Exhibition

An article on the bangkokpost about a Vietnamese artist Mong Bich, aged almost 90, a "pioneer" who has inspired generations of women artists in Vietnam, won plaudits overseas and she has a watercolour in the British Museum's collection.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit
89-year-old Vietnamese artist Mong Bich has received international recognition for her work, but has been largely undervalued in her home country. Photo: the Bangkok Post

At nearly 90 years old, Vietnamese artist Mong Bich chooses a spot on the tiled floor of her favorite room, checks the lighting, and sits down to paint.

Bich, considered a “pioneer” who has inspired generations of women artists in Vietnam, has received accolades abroad and has a watercolor in the British Museum’s collection.

However, she has been overlooked in her own country for years and had to wait until this month for her first solo exhibition, as reported by the Bangkok Post.

“Painting is like eating rice for me – I have to eat rice and I have to paint,” Bich told AFP at her home on the outskirts of Hanoi, where she continues to work for up to eight hours a day.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit
Mong Bich specializes in silk paintings depicting daily life and ordinary individuals, with a focus on women. Her work stood out during the years of war when artists were encouraged to depict soldiers and frontline workers. Photo: AFP

Initially hesitant about holding a solo exhibition, Bich was encouraged by her children to do so.

“I do not want to sell my work, so I did not see the point. My paintings are my memories,” she said prior to the opening of her exhibition in the capital city.

Bich specializes in silk paintings depicting daily life and ordinary individuals, with a particular focus on women. During the war with the United States, she took a different approach from other artists who were portraying soldiers or frontline workers.

“Portraits of individuals were not appreciated at that time, but they were Mong Bich’s forte,” said Phan Cam Thuong, an esteemed art critic and researcher.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit
Mong Bich and lacquer painter Tran Thanh in a painting session. Photos by Nam Son.

– ‘Painting is happiness’ –

Born in 1931 in Dong Ngac, north of Hanoi, Bich comes from a family of intellectuals. She was inspired by her brother and his artist-architect friends, and from a young age, she aspired to become a painter. During the war against the French from 1945 to 1946, Bich’s father was sent on a mission and the rest of the family evacuated to Doan Hung. After the liberation of the capital in 1954, she returned to Hanoi and worked for two years at the Central Armistice Committee while also taking art lessons.

For many years, Bich dedicated herself to taking care of her husband, a violinist and independence fighter who was injured while battling French forces in Laos. The couple lived in poverty as she raised their two children.

In 1956, Bich enrolled in the first class of the Vietnam College of Art in Hanoi and began drawing propaganda cartoons for a newspaper to earn a living.

However, she never stopped sketching scenes from everyday life, such as a poor elderly woman curled up on the floor or a mother breastfeeding a baby. One of her drawings, considered scandalous at the time, was initially removed from an exhibition in 1960.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit
A visitor looking at a painting by Mong Bich during the opening of her first solo exhibition at the French Cultural Centre in Hanoi. Photo: AFP

“I paint on my own, in my own style,” Bich said. “Some may like my paintings, some may not – I really don’t care.”

Despite the challenges she faced, Bich’s “pioneer spirit” continued to shine through, and she persevered with her work, according to Nora Taylor, a professor of South and Southeast Asian art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“I think many women looked up to her,” Taylor said.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit
The painting “A Little Korean Girl” by Mong Bich. Photo: VOV

Bich’s watercolor portrait of an elderly woman seated on the floor won first prize in 1993 at the Vietnam Fine Arts Association Annual Exhibition, but she did not gain much fame from it.

Vietnamese 'Pioneer' octogenarian artist gets first solo exhibit

The lack of recognition is due to the erasure of women’s contributions in Vietnam’s art history, as is the case in many parts of the world, according to Taylor.

However, there is finally a shift in recognition, and more people are acknowledging that Bich’s life and paintings are a testament to the experiences of many during 20th century Vietnam.

“In many ways, her story is Vietnam’s story. She has not had an easy life,” said Thierry Vergon, director of L’Espace, the French cultural center that hosted Bich’s exhibition in Hanoi.

“There was a lot of pain, a lot of death, but she kept going.”

For Bich, painting has always been a way for her to cope with life’s challenges.

“Happiness for me is being able to make a sketch or a painting,” she said. “That is how I deal with life’s difficulties.”

In the exhibition catalog, Bich’s son, painter Bui Hoai Mai, lovingly describes her as a strong and courageous artist who dedicated her talent and heart to art. He states that her paintings are created out of love for beauty and the perseverance she displays behind the easel.