The Magic of Melding: Folk Painting with a Contemporary Twist

With a rich background in fine arts and a vast network of connections with artisans, Hanoi's very own Nam Chi is a young artist with a unique mission. Passionate and driven, Chi is determined to revive the folk art form that is at risk of fading away. With a strong foundation in the arts and a deep connection to her roots, she aims to bring new life to these traditional paintings and ensure their survival for future generations to admire and appreciate.

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Hanoi-based artist Nam Chi, born in 1996, carefully applies his brush, adding silvery accents to the cloud patterns on his Dragon and Fairy fan design. Against the yellow paper background, traditional Vietnamese patterns shine, showcasing a unique, handmade product that feels both familiar and novel.

A Deep Passion for Traditional Art

Nam Chi, or Nguyen Van Bac as he was originally named, has dedicated nearly a decade to exploring and innovating Vietnamese folk art. From the outset, he questioned how this rich heritage could be diversified and made relevant to younger generations.

“Folk art demands creativity,” Chi asserts, “from the structure and lines to the colors, to ensure it resonates with contemporary tastes. I aim to contribute new patterns to the wonderful collection of Vietnamese folk art.”

Nam Chi, a talented artist, seamlessly blends the quintessence of various folk painting schools to forge a unique style. Image courtesy of the artist.

As a young student, Chi serendipitously discovered traditional fine arts, and immediately fell in love with folk paintings, captivated by their vibrant colors and distinctively Vietnamese themes. This early fascination evolved into a deep passion, prompting him to delve into the techniques of this ancient art form.

During his high school years, Chi devoted himself to studying papermaking, color mixing, and the intricacies of Hang Trong folk painting, a style native to Hanoi. He meticulously absorbed every step of the process, understanding the integral role of paper and paint in bringing these artworks to life.

Chi’s attention to detail is evident in his use of multiple layers of do paper, ensuring durability and thickness for his canvases. His paper glue, crafted from glutinous rice flour stripped of glucose, protects the artwork from termites and insects. Additionally, Chi is one of the few artists today skilled in the technique of painting with gold powder, adding a luxurious dimension to his creations.

Chi’s artistic passion led him to pursue graphic design at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, where he gained a profound understanding of both traditional and contemporary artistic principles. His academic journey fueled his curiosity, leading him to explore and appreciate the unique qualities of Vietnamese art.

Forging a New Path

To follow his dream of innovating traditional art, Chi had to meet stringent requirements. He scoured Google, YouTube, and second-hand bookstores for resources on folk painting, determined to master this ancient craft.

A stunning paper fan adorned with fairy and dragon patterns, crafted by the talented Nam Chi. Image courtesy of the artist.

Chi also ventured into the field, seeking out artisans to learn their traditional techniques. However, as traditional painting is often passed down from father to son, it proved challenging for him to access and apply this ancient knowledge.

Chi found valuable insights in materials from the French colonial period and foreign-language documents, such as L’imagerie Populaire Vietnamiene by Maurice Durand. These resources inspired him to merge the artistic elements of Hang Trong painting with the folk art of the Dao people in the northern mountains.

“I wanted the Dao people’s worship paintings to be recognized not just as ritual objects but as part of the broader Vietnamese folk art movement,” Chi explained. “So, I experimented with new ways of creating these paintings to appeal to younger art enthusiasts.”

Chi applied the standards for depicting gods and Buddhas in Hang Trong folk art to his own work, making his paintings more accessible and familiar to a wider audience. His innovative drawings are complemented by a masterful use of color, with vibrant hues and strong contrasts between hot and cold colors reflecting his youth, unique perspective, and deep passion for traditional culture.

Nam Chi, an inspiring artist, shares his love for Hang Trong folk painting with the next generation. Image courtesy of the artist.

According to researcher Nguyen Duc Binh, Chi’s strong foundation in fine arts, particularly graphic arts, ensures his creative process remains true to the essence of traditional painting. Binh commends Chi’s exceptional artistic perception and creative thinking, noting that his innovations within the folk art sphere are groundbreaking yet respectful of traditional aesthetics.

This sentiment is echoed by researcher Nguyen Thi Thu Hoa, Director of the Hanoi Museum of Ceramics and a leader in folk painting restoration projects. She acknowledges Chi’s self-taught journey and his successful fusion of traditional and contemporary elements in his art. “Young artists like Nam Chi,” she asserts, “are the future of folk painting, carrying this ancient art form forward into new chapters of its history.”

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