‘Pioneer’ octogenarian Vietnamese artist gets first solo exhibit

Aged almost 90, Vietnamese artist Mong Bich picks a spot on the tiled floor of her favourite room, checks the light and sits down to paint.

A “pioneer” who has inspired generations of women artists in Vietnam, Bich has won plaudits overseas and she has a watercolour in the British Museum’s collection.

But for years she has been overlooked in her home country — and has had to wait until this month for her first solo exhibition. 

“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 still works for up to eight hours a day.

At first, she had hesitated over holding a solo show, but her children encouraged it. 

“I do not want to sell my work so I did not see the point. My paintings are my memories,” she said ahead of this month’s opening in the capital.

Specialising in silk paintings of daily life and ordinary people — women in particular — Bich ploughed a lonely furrow during years of war against the United States, when artists were steered towards drawing 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 eminent art critic and researcher.

– ‘Painting is happiness’ –

Born in 1931 during the French colonial era, Bich spent decades caring for her husband, a violinist and independence fighter who was wounded fighting French forces in Laos. They lived in desperate poverty while she raised their two children.  

Needing to earn a living, in 1956 she enrolled in one of the first classes of the newly opened Vietnam College of Art in Hanoi and took a job drawing propaganda cartoons for a newspaper. 

But she never stopped sketching what she saw on the streets — a poor, old woman curled up on the floor and a mother breastfeeding a baby, a drawing considered so scandalous it was initially removed from an exhibition in 1960.

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

Despite everything she had to deal with, her “pioneer spirit” shone through, and she persevered with her work, said Nora Taylor, professor of South and Southeast Asian art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“I think many women subsequently looked up to her.”

Bich’s watercolour portrait of an elderly woman seated on the floor won first prize in 1993 at the Vietnam Fine Arts Association Annual Exhibition, but fame did not follow.

The lack of recognition is due to “a kind of erasure of women’s contributions in Vietnam’s art history, said Taylor, as happened across much of the world.

But that is finally changing, and there is growing acknowledgement that Bich’s life, and her paintings, are testimony to what many went through in 20th century Vietnam.

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

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

For Bich, her work has always been a way of coping with whatever life threw at her.

“Happiness was when I could make a sketch or a painting,” she said. 

“That was my way of dealing with life’s difficulties.”