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Received 31 Dec 2015 |Accepted 11 Mar 2016 |Published 19 Apr 2016
Queer art in Vietnam: from closet to pride in
ABSTRACT Male and female artists in Vietnam from the early 1990s to the new millen-
nium have contributed art that gives visibility to non-normative lifestyles that go against the
traditional values espoused by national rhetoric. This article explores some of the ﬁrst
manifestations of queer art in contemporary Vietnam, outlining a short history of artworks
that may be considered “queer”because of their subject matter, irrespective of whether they
were made by straight or queer identiﬁed artists. Many of these artworks are not made in
traditional media, or they break conventions in the local artistic canon. Frequently they have
performative characteristics, an art form that arose in Vietnam in the 1990s, the beginning of
the timeframe explored here. Photography, another medium not long or ﬁrmly established, is
also extensively employed. The narrative attends speciﬁcally to the dissidence, in content or
format, of selected artworks, and points to a correlation over time to an increased tolerance
of homosexuality. This article is published as part of a thematic collection on gender studies.
DOI: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.9 OPEN
1Department of Art History (Contemporary Art), Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid, Spain
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Although in Sliwinska’s opinion “queer culture is entwined
with art and visual culture”, research on queer art1is still
scarce (Sliwinska, 2013: 809). In one of the few books that
overview the intersection of both topics, Art and Homosexuality,
Reed (2011) examines a broad span of artworks and artists from
around the world, sometimes going back millennia, to discuss the
changing nature of ideas about homosexuality and its acceptance
in the various societies he researches. His dissection of
geographical and historical contexts bolsters his theories on the
meaning and relevance of the selected artworks.
Reed’s expansive text includes some commentary on Japan and
Polynesia, but offers no accounts from Southeast Asia. This
research gap was addressed by curator Lenzi in her paper “How
Queer Translates in Southeast Asian Contemporary Art”(2015), a
nuanced application of queer analysis to a number of artworks that
often do not explicitly reference homosexuality—if they refer to it
at all. Lenzi explores both the paradigms of queerness in the region,
as well as the question of how art made locally by openly queer
artists can operate to some degree as an act of protest from
societies under autocratic rule. In non-normative artistic creations
she ﬁnds striking examples of acts of resistance, which subtly mask
sociopolitical topics that cannot be overtly discussed in their
country of origin. As stated by the author, the paper makes the
general assumption “that art by queer regional artists is generally
contestative”(Lenzi, 2015: 12), and although the ﬁndings support
such a conclusion in that enriching study, Nora Taylor, via a
different scenario—that of performance art—reminds us to
maintain critical distance. Taylor (2009) is cautious about histories
that reduce performance to an offshoot of contemporary art, or
that approximate performance and marginality.
Lenzi’s background in law glimmers through her careful
analysis, concurring with Aronson (1999) that homosexuality has
been less well tolerated in Vietnam than elsewhere in Southeast
Asia. Aronson (1999: 204) studies legal codes from ancient to
contemporary, observing that the absence of laws against
homosexuality in Vietnam reiﬁed its invisibility in the public
realm and served “to deny the possibility of its existence”.He
sweeps through other historical sources to track down accounts
from travellers and missionaries of the past, dating from the
1600s, that generally suggest that throughout the ages, unlike its
neighbours, the land now known as Vietnam condemned
homosexuality. Things are not too different in the twenty-ﬁrst
century. Until the year 2000 it was illegal for gay couples to live
together, and homosexuality is still frowned upon, in part because
it was only removed from the ofﬁcial mental illness list in 2001
(Mann, 2014). Newton (2012), in her ethnography of female
homosexuality in Vietnam, examines its growing community
lexicon and three-part lesbian gender system. Navigating the
rapid changes in this complex scene, she points out the
mechanisms that render it a community that “does not exist”
in the eyes of society at large (Newton, 2012: 61). For Newton
(2012) and Rydstrøm (2006) sexual activity has been considered a
ˆi) even in Vietnam’s recent history,
placing a stigma most heavily on women (Schuler et al., 2006).
In summary, the literature suggests that legal and social
constructs had historically obscured homosexuality in Vietnam,
to a degree that caused it to be thought of as non-existent or a
foreign behaviour that did not occur among Vietnamese people.
Photographer Maika Elan (WPP, 2013) and writer Bui Anh Tam
(Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, 2004) provide eloquent accounts of
how negative media portrayals of gay people prompted them
to investigate the topic and develop creative works to combat ill-
informed stereotypes. Their work and recent changes in
legislation are helping to diminish homophobia. Same-sex
marriage is not contemplated by law, but the ban on celebrating
same-sex wedding ceremonies has been lifted, and as from 2017
the civil code will permit the gender reassignment of transgender
people (Anh Vu and Khanh An, 2015).
In parallel to this changing social order, the art panorama
manifested tensions of its own, which will be summarized below.
Beginning with the premise that homosexuality “exists”in Vietnam,
seeing that it now has a mention in the country’s legal history, this
article places the conﬂicting subjectivities surrounding cultural
norms, the legal framework, artistic innovation and media biases in
relation to art production. Focusing on representations of identity
“around the practices and pleasures that in the 20th century became
known as ‘homosexual’” (Oﬁeld, 2005), this discussion takes a
contained approach that knowingly leaves out some well-known gay
artists yet includes the work of straight-identiﬁed ones. To unravel a
schematic chronology of nation-speciﬁc queer art, the examples ﬁnd
common ground, as in Reed’s book, in their capacity to place
homosexuality in the foreground.
Art as resistance
The existence of civil society in Vietnam is questionable (Lenzi,
2015), but activism can manifest in many forms, and art has
opened doors for challenging social norms. Pham Vinh Cu (cited
in Nguyen Quan, 2015) believes that from the onset of the
twentieth century, the arts in Vietnam became much more
relevant than ever they had been in the country’s past. For him,
Vietnam’s literary production of the ﬁrst half of the century is a
milestone in national culture, yet he considers the visual arts to be
the signiﬁcant players during the second half of the century.
Vietnamese writers working in the 1930s, intrigued by
characters in French literature who made choices regarding their
own fate, unhindered by familial expectations, began a debate
about individualism (Phinney, 2008). The discourse of the Tho
Moi poets and Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-Reliance Literature Group)
challenged some traditional values and paved the way for new
forms of self-expression in creative writing. Tran (2012: 376–379)
recounts that French author Andre Gide’s homosexuality “was an
open secret in Vietnam at the time”, the 1930s, and explains some
oblique ways in which that fact appears in literature by
Vietnamese writers and “led to the articulation of individual
desire that destabilized the established social order”.
Tumultuous socioeconomic problems continued after the
Vietnam–American war, and were even exacerbated by the
“open door”policy (đô
́i) begun in Vietnam in 1986
The impact of the infrastructural changes was felt principally
from the beginning of the 1990s. New provocations shook the
visual arts in this period, when Vietnamese artists, although
frequently with minimal awareness of contemporary art outside
the country (due to Vietnam’s closure from after the war to 1986),
began to question the production of state-sanctioned art and its
emphasis on socialist realism. Where possible, artists shared
hard-to-get information on art practices outside Vietnam’s
borders. Artist Do Hoang Tuong (b. 1960) recalls seeing French
art catalogues that his colleague Nguyen Trung (b. 1940) had
brought back from his long-desired visit to Paris in 1990. “All we
knew were the books of Soviet art from the mid-twentieth
century”, Do exclaimed (cited in Taylor, 2014: 35). Artist Hoang
Duong Cam (b. 1974) explains how as a teenager he copied by
hand texts from books that were banned from circulation that he
had secretly borrowed from family friends. In this underground
manner he and other artists learned about Dadaism, Picasso and
other avant-garde artists and movements excluded from the
ofﬁcial art discourse (personal communication, 2014).
Throughout the 1990s, along with an inﬂux of foreign art
buyers, new art galleries opened in Vietnam. With multicultural
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exchanges from foreign practitioners coming into Vietnam and
some Vietnamese artists given the rare opportunity to visit other
countries, came the discovery, even if limited, of new art forms
beyond the picture plane and traditional media. Artist Thanh
Chuong enthused about the choices he now had: “[in] the past, if
someone asked a painter to paint a picture, they told the artist
what to paint. (…) I can now do what I like and use my own
ideas. It is a good time for Vietnamese artists”(cited in Findlay
and Hagemans, 1997).
1992 was a good example of the vitality that surged in the
Vietnamese artworld. According to art critic Ca Le Thang, 200
artists created 5,500 works that were shown across 25 venues and
seen by 400,000 visitors (Findlay and Hagemans, 1997). It was
also the year in which abstract art was permitted to hang in public
exhibitions, following a relaxation of state regulations,2although
government censorship would keep on restricting many forms of
self-expression, and continues to be exercised, along with cautious
self-censorship. Lenzi (2002) considers that the authorities in
post-Doi Moi Vietnam were quite tolerant of the visual arts, as
does Boitran Huynh (2005), who attributes a mild softening of
the Vietnamese government’s vigilance of literature and art to the
inﬂuence of Soviet perestroika.3Chiu and Genocchio (1996: 86)
maintain that visual artists were less censored than writers, but
document the severity of the problem and believe that “Ofﬁcial
censorship of artworks in Vietnam appears to be a relatively
recent and sporadic phenomenon”. Huynh believes, however, that
writers were more vocal than visual artists in calling for reforms,
perhaps because the market for Vietnamese paintings was taking
off and the resulting commercial potential was a disincentive for
painters to change their successful formulas.
The arrival of an art boom in conjunction with newfound creative
freedoms sparked a heated debate about the nation’scultural
heritage and artistic traditions. In the opinion of Nguyen Quan
(2015), when the art market took off in other Asian countries such
as Thailand, Indonesia or China, each country had already a deﬁned
artistic identity, whereas in Vietnam no national iconography had
yet solidiﬁed. There had been “an awkward artistic uniﬁcation in the
year after 1975”(Scott, 2015: 205), but historical north-south
differences did not vanish instantly. The artworld at this time was
not by any means a uniﬁed body on an ambitious mission to change
the paradigm, as Kraevskaia (2002) has synthesized.
Unsurprisingly, non-conventional images and the fresh
potential of installation and performance art were received with
mixed feelings, including denial that such pieces could be
considered art (Taylor, 2007).4However, forms like installation or
performance permitted an innovative form of dissent: “abreachof
aesthetic rules”(Radulovic, 2009: 192). Not short of contradictory
opinions, the local artworld questioned the artistic worth (as
opposed to “commercial value”) of paintings of, for example, idyllic
rural landscapes that were selling proﬁtably (Talawas, 2002; Nguyen
Quan, 2015). For Bui Nhu Huong (2009: 85) beautiful paintings of
the nation, or “nice art”, derive from an artistic history and a
tradition that few people grasp in full. In the face of rapid changes,
some perceived Vietnam’s past with a romanticizing glow. Taylor’s
(2007) interpretation of this profusion of countryside scenes,
dismissed by some as facile and commercial, is that these works
operate, for the most part, as allusions to Vietnam’s pre-communist
and pre-colonial past; in other words, they are subversive. With
such diverse methods of contesting established canons and
traditions, one can understand that this animated creative milieu
made way for novel artworks, and might be a conducive environment
for homosexuals to feel less pressured to remain in the closet.
Queer art in 1990s Vietnam: Truong Tan opens the closet
From this period, one of the ﬁrst artists able to leave Vietnam to
exhibit abroad was Truong Tan (b. 1963). Tan, who graduated in
1989, is the most widely known Vietnamese artist who is openly
gay. His work, which encompasses painting, sculpture, perfor-
mance art and installations, is a potent declaration for freedom of
expression. Since the early 1990s, his work explores social attitudes
by giving visibility to his sexual orientation (Kraevskaia, 2009).
In 1992, preparing for a group exhibition in the School of Fine
Arts of Hanoi, where Tan worked as a lecturer, he created a
painting called Circus (Fig. 1). This elongated work shows two
contorted, upside down ﬁgures, apparently male. The top one is
pushing one arm towards the space between the legs of the other
twisted character, whose ankles are tied up with a white rope
or sheet. The rope is a recurrent image in Tan’s paintings,
symbolizing the restrictions of Vietnam’s conservative socio-
political environment (Tsai, 2014). Tan considers this piece his
ﬁrst queer painting. “My goal was decided”, he says, explaining
that he was ready to make evident his homosexuality by showing
this work and to seriously develop his career as a professional
artist. He continued to draw homoerotic imagery, but he kept it
Figure 1 |Circus by Truong Tan (1992). Source: Photograph taken by
Truong Tan and reproduced with permission. This ﬁgure is covered by
the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.
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private for a time (personal communication, 2016). He tested the
waters at his ﬁrst solo show, in 1994, at the Ecole de Hanoi
gallery. “In this exhibition, [representations of] men appeared all
over the place”, he says (personal communication, 2016). Later
that year, Tan did an exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
that showed images of erect penises. The artist thinks this
imagery is what drove the authorities to start closely monitoring
his work, a surveillance that resulted in disquieting censorship the
following year (personal communication, 2016). Eighteen of
Tan’s artworks were taken down from the Cultural Collision
exhibition in Red River (Fleuve Rouge) gallery, Hanoi (Chiu and
Genocchio, 1996; Huynh, 2005). Promadhattavedi (1996: 36) has
observed that Tan’s homoerotic artwork is better received in the
West than in a society like Vietnam that frowns on individualism,
although in “any country Truong Tan’s work would be daring”.
By 1995, the international media was already describing Tan as
“Vietnam’s only openly gay painter”(Duffy, 1995: 50). Oﬁeld (2005:
361) ﬁnds that “‘coming-out’narratives of homosexual/gay history
are often organized around key moments of transition”.Tan’s
artistic “coming out”can be said to have happened in a more
physical manner in 1994, in the form of a spontaneous act in his
home. To prepare for an exhibition, the artist had asked a few of his
students to help. They assisted in wrapping him up in a white sheet,
and tied it around him with rope. From 1994 Tan put ropes and
chains around his two-dimensional pieces, although he had started
collaging objects such as hair and mirrors to his paintings some
years earlier (Truong Tan, 2010). Tan had instructed his small team
to take photos of him as this living mummy, images that the artist
intended to collage onto some paintings (personal communication,
2016). Tan then removed the binding rope and cloth and emerged,
symbolically, as a free person (Taylor, 2009; Bui Nhu Huong and
Vietnamese contemporary art5(BuiNhuHuong,2010).Whilethis
event cannot be considered a formal artistic performance, perfor-
mance in Vietnam has its origins around the mid-1990s, with Tan
himself citing the year 1996 as the starting point (Truong Tan, 2010).
The rise of performance art in Vietnam
An artistic performance in 1995 by Amanda Heng, an artist
invited from Singapore to Hanoi (Radulovic, 2009), was
followed, from 1996, by performances by artists Nguyen Van
Cuong, Dao Anh Khanh and a collaboration between Tran Anh
Quan and Nguyen Van Tien (a.k.a. Tien Van Mieu).6Tan
embraced the new medium because, like him, it was alienated
from social norms, free from rules and canons (Huynh, 2005:
356). Though all public displays were subject to ofﬁcial
regulations, performance art had built no local history from
which to construct evaluation criteria or judgments. Until the
end of the decade, performances would be uncommon events,
of an almost clandestine nature, that offered an alternative to
situating art within a gallery setting, which was more at risk of
beingprohibitedbytheDepartment of Information and
Culture (Taylor, 2007). Huynh sees a different challenge, and
a reason why performances do not attract much audience. She
ﬁnds that in traditional Vietnamese culture “performance art
goes against a strong reluctance to publicly display the ‘self’
and the taboo of revealing the body”(Huynh, 2005: 358).
Vietnamese performances developed quickly, if chaotically, and
had a profound impact on how art was perceived (Radulovic,
2009). By the late 1990s, a number of Vietnamese artists had
been invited to perform abroad, leading some young
Vietnamese artists to erroneously conclude that performance
art was contemporary art and vice-versa (Radulovic, 2009). The
subtleties of both the development and the place of
performance art in Vietnam are elaborated by Taylor (2009),
who discerns the differences in styles among the most relevant
practitioners. Curator Apinan Poshyananda celebrates performance
for its revitalizing capacity of providing “novel perspectives on
social and cultural issues”(cited in Lalwani, 2014: 108). By the year
2000, Poshyananda (2000) had seen a change across Southeast
Asia’s artwork, through the contributions of Asian artists to a
critical debate on postmodernism, new media and issues relating to
In 1996, Truong Tan, in collaboration with his student Nguyen
Van Cuong (b. 1972), executed what is considered one of the best
performances of this early period (Bui Nhu Huong and Pham
Thuong, 2012). Mother and Child, or Mother and Son, also
known as The Past and the Future according to Bui Nhu Huong
and Pham Thuong (2012: 16), was performed at the closing event
of an exhibition by Nguyen Minh Thanh at the government
sponsored gallery on 29 Hang Bai, Hanoi (Edwards, 1997). In this
10-minute event, Tan curled up on the ﬂoor, smeared with red
paint to look bloodied and rolled around tormented by Cuong’s
broom, which swept Tan around. In Bui Nhu Huong’s (2010: 80)
description of this piece, Tan represents a “violent and war-
hungry red animal”, whereas in another text Tan is metaphori-
cally a piece of rubbish, swept away by the man in a traditional
conical hat whose job is to clean up the past and sweep away old
dirt to prepare the way for something new (Bui Nhu Huong and
Pham Thuong, 2012). The confusion surrounding the title,7and
the ambivalent reading of the actions performed say a lot about
the enigmatic power of the piece. Political criticism in the work is
a plausible deduction, but the gender change of Nguyen Van
Cuong, who performs as mother, suggests a deeper queer
intention, symbolizing a scene where a homosexual son is
brushed aside and hidden away by the family ﬁgure that
represents the pillar of society. The spilt blood, in this case,
pours from the broken family ties, which are also a tie to the
community and therefore to the nation. It is signiﬁcant that the
“mother”is wearing a traditional conical hat8of the type widely
used in Vietnam, associated with tradition and the rural, which,
as we have seen, is a bone of contention in the Vietnamese
quandary on the characteristics of the nation’s art. This
performance, therefore, seems to put on the same scale the
country’s limited tolerance of homosexuality with the equally
poor acceptance of innovations in artistic themes and media.
Radulovic (2009) documents the offence and astonishment that
this performance caused, noticing how, on the one hand, it fed a
mistrust of new trends and their ﬁnancial (in)viability, and, on
the other, it challenged, reformulated and even reclaimed ideals of
artistic beauty, which until then had been the domain of the
Queer art in Vietnam in the 2000s: homosexuality in the
Zhuang Wubin (2010) recounts the forked origins of photo-
graphy in Vietnam, determining that the ﬁrst local generation of
photographers in post-Doi Moi HCMC are a few practitioners,
born around 1950, able to break out of the self-taught “tradition”
that had been the norm in the post-1975 era. Findlay and
Hagemans (1997) reiterate parts of the narrative on “Vietnam’s
own ﬁne photographic past”, observing that photography
exhibitions were becoming more frequent in the 1990s and that
photography was the most visible of new artistic developments.
An artist who has produced work that questions social
acceptance of homosexuality is photographer Ngo Dinh Truc
(b. 1973). “How to whisper secretly in public?”he asks in his
artist statement about his series The Same [Gender] (Cùng Gie
[Gender] p), from 2007 (Ngo Dinh Truc, 2015). In Vietnamese,
the phrase “the same/the same ones”can also mean “the same gender”.
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The work is a selection of images with text on. Commercial
photos of luxurious interiors suggest an upscale lifestyle: a double
bed in a hotel room with a spectacular view, two wineglasses on a
table for three, an elegant bathroom with two urinals side by side,
an ofﬁce with two identical desks side by side and so on. Ngo
Dinh Truc describes these photographs as “neutral”because they
derive from his commercial work as an interior photographer.
There are no people in the scenarios, leaving us to guess who uses
the double bed, drinks the wine or shares the ofﬁce. Super-
imposed catchlines over the photographs translate as “The same
[gender]”,“The same ones/gender hang out together”,“the same
ones/gender have coupled up”,“The same order and discipline”,
“The same ones/gender are close”or “The same ones/gender tuck
one another in”, all of which in Vietnamese have an ambiguous
reading due to homonymy and word play. The texts over these
photographs in one sense could be interpreted as merely
descriptive, but the double meaning is intentional, designed to
provoke a reinterpretation of the idea of gender.
This queer art project is not a performance per se, but has a
performative element to its public presentation. Truc put colour
posters of these artworks on the streets of Hanoi and Saigon, and
handed out ﬂyers to passers-by. The intention was to elicit a
response from the community and to instigate a discussion on
gender and homosexuality. Curator Nguyen Nhu Huy (2009)
believes that this could be the ﬁrst instance where a Vietnamese
artist has used art to interact with the public space in such a way,
although he considers this intervention to be more akin to
activism than to an artistic performance. Nhu Huy’s enthusiasm
is directed towards the reach of this work, it reaches the general
public, not just the gallery-going public. This detail is what
prompts the curator to link this work to activism, an activity that,
since the Guerrilla Girls at least, can be ascribed to a number of
contemporary artworks all over the world.
When Huy talks of how this work affects “the collective mind”
(Nhu Huy, 2009: 92), he seems to inﬂate how much this transient,
public imagery might impact the locus of society’s moral
consensus, the place where ideologies that condemn homosexu-
ality are rooted. There are abundant ethnographic studies on
public space in Vietnam9that, following Taylor’s (2007) work,
could be worth analysing in relation to Huy’s intuition. On the
other hand, Huy’s call for impact measurement reminds us of
corporate practices in marketing. Truc’s aesthetics borrow from
advertising. The photographs of perfect settings marked by a
slogan, once in the public realm, are interpreted within known
parameters. The audience is not destabilized by the medium,
which is recognized as part of the urban marketing clutter. The
familiar form of the street poster helps to make the message more
seductive. It can easily be overlooked, but it creates curiosity
without seeming too intrusive or unintelligible, something that
many other outdoor artworks—or performances—might do. The
effectiveness of the artwork, like that of a promotional campaign,
Huy posits, must be measured by its capacity to effect change,
even if subtle, in the viewer. Alas, no data collection was planned
into the art intervention, but Ngo Dinh Truc has created a
valuable exploration of the photograph as a vehicle that shifts
from commercial to artistic purposes.
Out and proud but hidden
Himiko Nguyen (Nguyen Kim Hoang, b. 1976) is not an artist
that one would call a photographer because of the multi-
disciplinary nature of her work, yet her photographic practice is
central to the artworks discussed next. Her photographs of female
bodies are worlds apart from the clichéd female beauties in
Vietnam that Abby Robinson (2006) has become fatigued with, easy
pictures where that “which is important is immediately evident”.
Himiko’s photographs of women from her series Closer (2007),
and Come Out (2011) and Come Out II (2014) are highly
innovative. By her own admission, she has tried to push the
boundaries by choosing the nude as a theme in a country where
naked images are not permitted (personal communication, 2015).
Aiming to reassure the general public that nudes are not equal to
pornography, these projects achieve two main things. On the one
hand, as she declares, these works chip away at some of the
prejudices that a national education insistent on condemning
“social evils”has built up. On the other hand, they circuitously
present images of female desire, where there is no “sexual object”
because both photographer and subject have agency.
Whereas Truong Tan’s strategy of painting overtly sexual,
erotized nudes was his way of rejecting a dominant aesthetic that
stood as apolitical (Chiu and Genocchio, 1996: 89), Himiko
obscures eroticism by dramatically cropping or hiding the nudes,
creating images that are the opposite of blatant. This could be
interpreted as an emphasis on sensuality, or a method for
circumventing censorship, yet the strategy empowers the gaze by
authorizing it to examine attentively, to not lazily rely on
immediate, obvious impressions. In addition, it reﬂects the
situation of being in the closet, of hiding one’s private life.
The warm-tinted photographs from Closer depart from the
genre of portraiture and hint to the abstract, both by virtue of a
limited colour range and because they capture close ups or
unconventional angles and poses. The title, while describing the
eye/camera lens’proximity to the glowing body, is a reminder of
the potential of art to draw people together in conversation. In
talking about her creative process, Himiko says that “normal
concepts of the body are extinguished, when one gets closer it is
like language with no limit, no distinction”(Nguyen Himiko,
2007, 2013). A queer reading of that sentence ﬁnds a discrete call
for social divisions to break down, helped by the common
language that can arise spontaneously from close interactions.
Distinct from Truc’s public distribution of messages, Himiko’s
works seem to politely request that the public be more open to
think about homosexuality without judgment, merely observing
and accepting, as in meditation, a practice she engages in.
Himiko laments the unwritten rules and constraints that she
notices in Vietnamese society. Her work, she says, is “about gender,
about the third sex in a very strict (…)society”(personal
communication, 2015). This “third sex”may be a reference to
transgender or queer ﬂuidity, or to the three lesbian identities
discussed by Newton (2012). The constraints Himiko talks about
are evident to Newton, who has found lesbophobia to be a tool used
by the state to exert control, though she has seen an appropriation
of it on the part of the lesbian community to turn it upside down.
Come Out (Fig. 2) is an autobiographical project. Self-portraits
of the naked artist, often in a yoga pose, softly lit against a dark
background, are encased in black boxes mounted on the wall
like cupboards. Each box has a hole in the centre for the viewer
to look in. Upon pressing a light switch, the photograph inside
becomes visible. The visibility that the title itself calls for is thus
interactive. The coming out process requires the help of a viewer
who will switch on the light. Most importantly, the boxed
framing device has the commanding job of channelling the
viewer’s gaze to completely reverse the conventional power
The newer version, Come Out II, is larger in scale, a beehive of
black boxes, stacked and lined up occupying a whole room. The
inference of such a large work is that the action required to elicit a
coming out is now more social than individual. It takes a
collective to work together and bring light to a hidden issue. The
creation of these two versions, a few years apart, is hopefully a
welcome sign of the speed of changes in the public discourse on
Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) issues.
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Documenting the queer decade
Art, in many societies, is not a medium that reaches the masses.
This is the case in Vietnam, where the events and artworks
mentioned, although harbingers, have had a small impact on a
nation-wide scale outside artistic circles. A documentary project,
Pink Choice (2012), has been more successful in widely spreading
an anti-homophobic message. It comes from a sociologist turned
documentary photographer, Maika Elan (Nguyen Thanh Hai,
b. 1986). Pink Choice has had much media exposure following its
exhibition in Hanoi (2012) and due to it winning the 2013 World
Press Photo prize and other awards.
In 2011, Maika Elan realized that if she were gay, she would not
dare to come out because Vietnamese media portrayed homo-
sexuality as “a tragic fate”with multiple negative connotations
(WWP, 2013). The black boxes in Himiko’s artistic critique are a
metaphor of this media bias, we realize. On her part, Maika also
encountered people who professed to be open-minded, but
reacted with disgust at expressions of same-sex affection. In her
circle of acquaintances, however, she saw a different story: people
would come out quite early to supportive families and lead happy
lives. She embarked on a research mission. Her procedure to
contest media negativity and to foster acceptance was to reclaim
beauty: “when something is beautiful people just accept it as it is”,
she says (WWP, 2013). Free from antagonistic ideas of beauty
that artists in Vietnam had debated during the 1990s, the press
release states: “Love is beautiful”(AAA [Asia Art Archive], 2012),
with a simplicity useful for widespread dissemination.
Irrespective of beauty constructs, the images are powerful
expressions of affection, support and complicity between indivi-
duals whose identity is a key part of the work. Unlike other projects
discussed above, Pink Choice does not have a performative element
in its ﬁnal form, although the people it portrays were able to choose
to “perform”their self-representation, or remain candid. Maika,
and the people she photographed, decided to move away from
anonymity and discretion, to combat the lack of identity that
media cloaks gay people in. The photographs collect routine
moments in the lives of gay and lesbian couples, inserting them
into parameters of the “normal”.
The decision of participants to pose for these photographs
cannot be underestimated. Artist and critic Viet Le (2015), on his
part working on an ethnographic photography project on gay
male nudes, found his own coming out, in the relative safety of
the United States, difﬁcult. Discrimination has no borders, but it
is not preventing people from taking risks. Queer lifestyles seem
to be a popular theme for creations that, as Maika hopes, will help
to demystify and make “real”the lives of gay people (WPP, 2013).
Twenty years after Truong Tan painted his ﬁrst homosexual
artwork, Nguyen Quoc Thanh (b. 1970) created a photographic
series that explores the formation of male homosexuality in
Vietnam, A Soldier’s Garden (2012). Whereas Tan, and to some
extent Himiko, started their explorations around their personal
experiences, Thanh omits references to himself, and, like Maika
Elan, embarks on a research of the gestation of feelings and
desires in others. Thanh’s aim with A Soldier’s Garden is to
explore homosexual desire within a group of young men living in
Set in a location that affords some distance from peers who
may see or hear, trainee soldiers are captured in a familiar
portraiture style, at night, in the gardens of their military
residence. The process, Thanh found as he worked, manifests the
power of state conditioning. The young men he points his camera
at hover on the uncertain space between being at ease for a casual,
friendly photo, and being watched by ofﬁcers whose vigilance
sanctions ofﬁcial behaviour codes. This awkward position
translates onto the photographs as “distances—between the
subjects, between the image and the viewer, between darkness
and light”(Thanh cited in Zhuang Wubin, 2015).
The images are, like Himiko’s, not very explicit, and bring to
the fore elements of the private sphere. Thanh works in an ofﬁcial,
restricted-access space, which he has had to request permission to
use. In this case, the bureaucratic procedure of getting a licence to
enter the barracks is undergone even before the works are made. A
licence will be required again later, to exhibit the works. Closer or
Pink Choice celebrate the freedom of privacy, whereas the Soldier’s
Garden reverberates with stagnant ofﬁcial impositions. Decades
prior, grinding restrictions spurred Truong Tan to leave his
institutional job as a lecturer (Lenzi, 2002; Naziree and Phan,
2006). In 1997 he moved to Paris, where he discovered feelings of
freedom beyond his expectations (Tsai, 2014).
The artworks above have laid down the groundwork for a more
inclusive future. Truong Tan’s visual narratives of homosexual love
shook the Vietnamese artworld, yet they inspired many to move
away from convention. Artist and curator Tran Luong—himself a
creator of powerful performances—was inspired by Truong Tan’s
bravery. Over a decade later, Luong made a rather melodramatic
statement against the continued marginalization of gay people:
…the voice of homosexual class has been refused point blank
for 14 years since Truong Tan exhibition in 1995. We should
never ignore the fact that homosexuals account for at least 2%
of the total population of 80 millions. They have lived in the
dark for two thousand years without happiness [sic]. (Tran
Luong, 2009: 184)
This well-intention comment from an open-minded artist is
indicative of how pervasive ideologies are on the exceptionalism of
queer identity, and their emotional well-being. Tran Luong’s
statistic (2% of the population is gay) is not backed up by any
source, but may be an intuitive, if questionable, interpretation of
the Vietnam population census, which in 1989 noted that the
percentage of men who never marry is between 0.9% and 3.6%,
depending on the region (Aronson, 1999: 208).10 Of course there
can be no direct correlation between marriage and sexual orien-
tation, but Aronson uses the census data to explain how Vietnamese
tradition of ﬁlial obligation made it unnecessary for civil authorities
Figure 2 |The peephole in the wooden box over one of Himiko’s
photographs from the Come Out series. Source: Photograph taken by
Cristina Nualart (2011) and reproduced by permission of Nguyen Kim
Hoang. This ﬁgure is covered by the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.
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to create laws against homosexuality. The weight of tradition by
itself would lead to people getting married (Aronson, 1999: 208). As
we have seen, two generations of artists are working to reduce the
friction of old traditions on a vibrant, young Vietnam, although
many artists avoid confrontation and play it safe (Kraevskaia, 2002).
Another challenge associated with homosexuality has been
AIDS. The AIDS crisis in the United States united sufferers and
supporters through the ACT UP network, organizing perfor-
mances called “die-ins”(Foster, 2003), that, as the name implies,
recall Truong Tan’sroleinMother and Child.Althoughfrom
the mid-1990s USAID (2015) started an HIV/AIDS programme
in Vietnam, the AIDS crisis in Asia was less visible, or visible in
a troubling way. Imagery on Vietnamese anti-AIDS posters
suggests that the disease is “associated with drug use and
prostitution”(Chiu and Genocchio, 1996: 89).11 Truong Tan
responded with some AIDS-related paintings that show wasted
male bodies.12 A number of authors compare Tan’s drawings
with those of Keith Haring (Lenzi, 2002, 2015; Chiu and
Genocchio, 2010; Bui Nhu Huong and Pham Thuong, 2012).
Artist Hoang Duong Cam seems to recall that the comparison
between Truong Tan and Keith Haring was ﬁrst made by
Bradford Edwards (personal communication, 2014). Tan
himself acknowledged Haring’sinﬂuence on his drawing style
during his formative period (Chiu and Genocchio, 1996: 89),
but, although both artists create thick-lined drawings with a
spontaneous quality, Tan’s are rendered with more natural
proportions and lack the cartoonish rhythm of Haring’sgrafﬁti.
The recurrence of the comparison is legitimate but risks
entrenching rigid associations to gay and AIDS activism and
to group homosexual artists together.
As more visibility is given to queer identiﬁed people, the less
likely it is that they will all be bundled together. Many of the
artworks discussed above predate the following events, which
have a broader, more popular, reach: Vietnam’sﬁrst Gay Pride
parade was celebrated in 2012 (AP, 2012), the same year that My
Best Gay Friends sitcom debuted on YouTube to become an
instant hit (DeHart, 2013). In 2013, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, a
founding member of the Hanoi art space Nha San Collective and
author of A Soldier’s Garden, initiated Queer Forever, a queer art
festival in Hanoi that encompasses art exhibitions, conferences
and concerts. The festival is growing year on year, and is widely
publicized via independent online publications.13 Offord (2013:
339) notices patterns in LGBT activism that signal a divergence
between Southeast Asian and Western societies, but if one may
extrapolate the ﬁndings made by Calzo and Ward (2009) on the
presence of gay and lesbian characters in the US media,
Vietnam’s increasing visibility of homosexuals may also lead
towards wider social acceptance (see Phillips, 2013 for a recent
survey of the situation). A Vietnamese news article gives an
inspiring example that indicates that media exposure can help to
normalize homosexuality (Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, 2004).
Censorship has been mentioned in this discussion regularly,
and almost as rhythmically has affected Tan and Himiko over
their careers (NCAC, 2007; Naziree, 2010). Ngo Dinh Truc’s
urban intervention could avoid permit requests, because only
conventional exhibitions in a venue open to the public need the
licence from the Ministry of Information and Culture.
A look at the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC,
2007) listing of Himiko’s“Closer”gives an indication of the issues
the censoring board takes into account before granting, or not, a
licence to exhibit. The irony is that it is not just the Vietnamese
government censoring her nude photography, it is also Facebook
(see ). The social network, in turn not ofﬁcially approved, is used
on an unprecedented scale in Vietnam, which has one of the
highest Internet censorship circumvention rates in the world
The Deputy Head of the Culture and Art Department says
there is no list of forbidden topics, but “artists are advised not to
show work that opposes the party and the government, or goes
against traditional customs”, such as modest attire (Brown, 2012).
A gallerist of Vietnamese art known to this author has had more
trouble securing licences to show artworks with frontal nudity than
with any other topic (personal communication, 2016). The
prestigious art centre in HCMC, San Art, recently closed its
Laboratory building devoted to artist residencies, due to continued
censorship issues. Nearby, San Art’s main gallery space had taken
to exhibiting the ofﬁcial letters that denied the necessary exhibition
licence in lieu of banned artworks. This happened with staged
photographs by Phan Quang and images of Cambodian bomb
ponds by Vandy Rattana.14 None of the photographs by either
artist had any direct, queer theme, although it should be said that
the gallery has not, to my knowledge, shown any overtly queer
artworks. My personal impression is that Vietnamese censors do
not show a distinct bias against homosexuality, as authorities
systematically reject any work that has political or sexual overtones.
This article has looked for connections between Vietnam’s
structural development in the latter part of the twentieth century,
its modern and contemporary art history, and, within that, a
number of queer art projects created since the 1990s.
In post-Doi Moi Vietnam, at the same time as state policies
took effect, the ﬁrst generation of contemporary art performers
and photographers added to the innovative ripples that were
shaking art thinking and practice. The decade of the 1990s is
considered to mark the beginning of Vietnamese contemporary
art, and it is interesting to ﬁnd that art with homosexual content
appears at the same time. Although not all queer artworks have
been explored (a task too lengthy to be accommodated here), the
timeline suggests that, since the breakthrough that Truong Tan
made in the early 1990s, queer artworks have been created with
increasing frequency, and are also being created by straight
people, which is an important sign that it is not just the queer
minority who are interested in this.
Selecting topics such as explicit male nudes and same-sex
arousal, low awareness about AIDS or government abuse—in the
form of surveillance, restrictions or corruption—Truong Tan
caused so much shock that he conceivably made it easy for other
artists to take risks. Unfortunately, the censorship he experienced
was also much talked about, and possibly hindered other artists
from developing unconventional work. Nonetheless, important
artists of his generation and later, including Tran Luong and
Hoang Duong Cam, have expressed their indebtedness to
Tan’s overt homosexuality has arguably contributed signiﬁcantly
to his success as an artist, although the repetitive expectations
placed on him by the outside world have been a burden. He denies
that homosexuality is the only topic he is interested in. “[M]y
works are about humanity in general. My private life is private”,he
exclaims in a critique of the categorization of a person by their
sexual orientation (cited in Tsai, 2014). In recent years, his
installation pieces, for example Hidden Beauty (2007) or Mother of
Peace (2009), show a strong critique of the Vietnamese government
that is not related to sexual issues.
Performative works of queer art in Vietnam have occupied an
important part of the discussion. It has been stated that the
development of performance is not directly contestative, but
arguments explain that inherent characteristics of performance
art (such as its “portability”, spontaneity, freedom from canons or
its ability to stun audiences, as in the reactions to Mother and
Child described by Radulovic) were conducive to using it as an art
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practice of resistance. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to
suggest that it was mostly used to manifest queer discontent. If
anything, it appears to have been used in equal parts to challenge
academic art and to critique political issues. Fundamentally,
performance was the newcomer on the Vietnamese art play-
ground and experienced some bullying. The rejection was not so
monolithic as to concern us that the alienation of the art form will
drag on indeﬁnitely. As Taylor (2009: 173) says, “in many ways
[performance art] entered the mainstream”.
Two-dimensional works are a more accepted, established
medium, one that is still perfectly valid for creating affront.
Truong Tan’s drawing style breaks with tradition in its simpliﬁed,
linear aspect, but pays homage to tradition with its material
constitution: Tan uses rice paper and lacquer dear to Vietnamese
tradition. His principal achievement is in the discomforting
choice of subject matter, sometimes described as pornographic—
something that in other countries would be dismissed as self-
inﬂating shock tactics. In Vietnam it was an example of an
individual rejecting national power structures and it activated
both contemporary art and homosexual visibility.
A salient point is the wilfulness with which some artists work
against the grain. Nguyen Quoc Thanh’s public activism (Queer
Forever festival) gives credence to the impression that Vietnam’s
homosexual community can come out of hiding in relative
safety, with the cautions that transpire from Newton’s (2012)
research. Artists Tan and Himiko clearly articulate their
objective to defy censorship and to express themselves freely.
Those objectives are not tied in unison. Since censorship can be
unpredictable, it is not in direct opposition to self-expression.
perceived as an angry rebellion to authority. On the contrary,
they indicate a thoughtful understanding on how national
ideology is implemented and how it is naturalized by the general
population. In Closer we ﬁnd a good example of intellectual
retaliation. She combats pervasive stereotypes with “homoeo-
pathic”methods: by zooming in on the allergen and dosing it.
Ngo Dinh Truc and Maika Elan did not ideate The Same
[Gender] or Pink Choice with the same personal drive for self-
expression that we sense in Tan and Himiko, but those equally
laudable projects demonstrate clever reﬂections on how to avoid
instant public dismissal. Like the best pedagogy, they offer a new
layer of learning that mines ingrained knowledge and slowly
erodes by incompatibility. All three projects use their visual
power to activate emotions. The linguistic ploy in The Same
[Gender] is an effective method for making distinct the invisible
assumptions encoded in the culture. The hidden images in Come
Out, in their interactive framing device, generate a similar
situation, tending to the phenomenological rather than the
Pink Choice and Closer lay claim, clearly articulated by their
creators, to a vindication of beauty. Even if no deﬁnitions of
beauty were speciﬁed or proposed, it is not because both
photographers assume that beauty ideals are universal, but
because the concept of beauty is so linked to Vietnamese identity
(the beauty of the nation, in its widest sense, is historically
entrenched) that it has an unmistakeable resonance. As Maika
explained, beauty is a tool that makes her work acceptable to
those who would reject it for its homosexual content. An excellent
account of the pervasive ideology of beauty, to a degree that it can
be used as a social control mechanism, comes from Erik Harms
(2012), whose analysis centres on ideals of urban beauty. It is
worth recalling here the artistic debates of the 1990s, in which
innovations such as performance art were denounced by many as
“ugly”. Himiko and Maika’s photographs do not violate standard
expectations about art to the extent that performance did decades
earlier, thus they share some afﬁnity with traditional art, which in
its most basic construct is perceived as beautiful “by default”.
As for the international picture, the development of queer art
in Vietnam and in the United States highlights a curious
difference in the status of the artists. For the American artists
in the mid-twentieth century—Reed (2011) cites Paul Cadmus
and Jared French—queer themes were possible only if they gave
up pretensions of becoming avant-garde ﬁgureheads. The
American establishment could tolerate some skilful images of
male nudes in the light of Renaissance tradition, but would never
sanction other types of explicitly homoerotic depictions (although
these were known to circulate in trusted circles of like-minded art
lovers and collectors). As someone informed a young, eccentric-
looking Andy Warhol a few years later, “the major painters try to
look straight”(cited in Reed, 2011: 171). This contrasts with the
Vietnamese scenario, almost in polar opposition. Vietnamese
artists, at least Truong Tan (since he is of the generation active in
the 1990s, when avant-garde art—arguably—begins in Vietnam),
appear to enter the avant-garde rather than exit it when they take
on queer subject matter. In the past, some Vietnamese artists
believed that engaging in performance art made them con-
temporary artists. If LGBT themes are seen as the key to “current”
contemporary art, perhaps gay art will merely be the next trend.
During the 1990s, many critics in Vietnam’s effervescent artworld
felt that performance art was a trend for lazy artists (for example,
Miscault, 2015). Time has shown that the experimentation that
took place in Vietnam may not have resulted in a string of
masterpieces, but overall, the art form has contributed some
singular works to the world.
Through examination of post-Doi Moi cultural production,
this study has tried to document how homosexuality has shifted
its way into the margins of visibility, even if it is still far from
mainstream. While this study does not purport to be exhaustive,
in the period from 1992 to 2015, the creation of queer artworks
has been growing in quantity and in type of media. The ﬁndings
show that queer artworks are generated from one of two places: a
drive to resist established behaviour codes, or a need to ﬁnd
answers, to explore and research some aspect of homosexuality. It
is up to debate if the Vietnamese social imaginary is changing its
awareness, understanding and levels of tolerance as a conse-
quence of, or aided by, queer cultural works.
1 Reed (2011: 240–242) has articulated the language shifts around terms like gay art
and queer art. This article uses the more prevalent term queer art to designate art
with themes that address homosexuality in some way, irrespective of whether the
works were made by straight or queer identiﬁed artists, or if these are publicly out.
2 Abstraction was permitted from 1990 according to Huynh (2005: 142), or from 1991
according to Taylor (2012: 10), but the ﬁrst licence-granting authorization for a
speciﬁc exhibition to feature abstract art was given in 1992 (Kraevskaia, 2009: 106).
3 Chiu and Genocchio (1996: 85) call Doi Moi “the Vietnamese perestroika”.
4 The debate also touched upon the ontology of contemporary art, questioning if
Vietnam was even capable of producing such art. The idea mirrors colonial patterns
in the Western hemisphere, according to Desai (2005). Until the early 1990s, the
president of the Asia Society never witnessed serious curatorial consideration for
inclusion of contemporary Asian art into collections in the United States. Desai
illuminates his point by citing art critic Holland Cotter: “How could avant-garde art
exist anywhere in the ‘timeless’cultures of what we monolithically call Asia? If it did,
it could not be any good. Too Western, or too Asian. Or too little of one or the other”
(cited in Desai, 2005: 104).
5 Radulovic (n.d.) sees Tan as initiating performance art in Vietnam, a statement
corroborated by Boi Tran Huynh who gives the year 1994 (Huynh, 2005: 356, 358).
The expression “contemporary art”employed by Bui Nhu Huong illustrates the
discrepancies that Vietnam was having on the meaning of that term.
6 These two artists date their performance in the grounds of Hanoi’s Temple of Lit-
erature to 1997 (Tien Van Mieu, n.d.,), although Taylor (2007, 2009) places it in
1995. This and other minor inconsistencies in the details of artworks point to the
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scarcity of documentation on this generation of artists, possibly because the artists
had little sense of the potential future impact of their experimentations.
7 The piece is known in English as Mother and Son in Radulovic (2009: 191) and Lenzi
(2015: 16), Mother and Child in Bui Nhu Huong (2010: 12) or The Past and the
Future in Bui Nhu Huong and Pham Thuong (2012: 16). The discrepancy in the
recorded title is all the more puzzling, as the same author, Bui, contributes to two of
8 Incidentally, the conical leaf hat is becoming a performance prop all by itself, it would
appear from Harms’(2011) ﬁndings, whereby street vendors choose to wear tradi-
tional garments as part of their improvised “marketing strategy”to sell their home-
9 For example, Drummond (2000) or Thomas (2001).
10 Interestingly, in 2012 a small-scale gender report in HCMC found that out of 189
respondents, 2% declared to be neither female nor male (LIN Center for Community
11 Ofﬁcial posters and billboards of this type continued to be displayed in Vietnam until
at least 2015, as witnessed by the author.
12 For example, the works on paper Contagiously Sick, which can be viewed online
(Truong Tan, 2010), The Hunter for Aids and Aids Fuckers Go Home, both from
1995, or the 1994 installation titled I Like You I Like HIV discussed in Chiu and
Genocchio (1996: 90).
13 The Hanoigrapevine.com is an online information network on art and culture with a
long trajectory. It is written mostly in English and run by volunteers. In recent years
other online art and culture magazines have sprung up, although some are short
lived. Facebook is a very popular method for distributing information in Vietnam, for
reasons thoroughly articulated by Sharbaugh (2014).
14 This information is public and online on the San Art Facebook page or their Website.
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Data sharing is not applicable to this article, as no datasets were generated or analysed
during the current study.
Competing interests: The author declares no competing ﬁnancial interests.
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How to cite this article: Nualart C (2016). Queer art in Vietnam: from closet to pride in
two decades. Palgrave Communications. 2:16009 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.9.
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