(No.9, Vol.3, Oct 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Tran Van Thao’s artworks

Refreshing it is to see an art exhibition in a public place. Usually, we have to see this in a locale known as an art
gallery, which, of course, means that only those who already have an interest in art will bother to go. I had already seen one exhibition by Tran Van Thao in a residence building, so I was not surprised to find his latest work in a spacious corner of the cavernous lobby of Sofitel Saigon Plaza. It is a wise move on his behalf, as abstract art in Vietnam is in need of outreach. Furthermore, this is just the place to catch the eye of the well-heeled art lover; you can view his paintings here with all the normal activity of a five-star hotel going on around you. The concierge was busy advising a guest at her desk beside Mr Thao’s most prominent and largest exhibit when I visited. Refreshments, cups and a coffee machine were sitting on a table under two other paintings waiting for people to admire them during the break of a Diageo company meeting. A Sofitel employee named Miss Quynh approached me and asked if I remembered her from an English class I had taught. ‘What do you think of these paintings?’, I asked her. ‘I do not understand’, she replied ‘Yes, abstract art does confound the human need for an explanation to everything.’ It’s not really for your understanding but for your feelings, I tried to convince her.
One of the paintings is in a very prominent position for all. It is in the porch way that leads to the men’s loo on the left and the women’s on the right. ‘Acrylic and Glue on Canvass’ may not sound very interesting, but its beautiful orange hues and daubs of oil will sooth all those who pass by in need of relief
I mention colour; Thao’s clever and pleasing use of this is his main method of giving me warm feelings. These twenty or so paintings come in batches of two or three with one main colour in common. Metallic gray is used for three small pictures featuring a central sea shell – perhaps a mussel, or could it be that essential representation of female power the yoni of Hindu temples. They are labelled ‘Force’, one, two and three. ‘Mail box’ one, two and three come in more prosaic black and white colours; as just indicated not all the paintings are one hundred per cent abstract. In another pair in brown varnished timber colours, it is easy to imagine through a haze slender ‘ao dai’ clad girls. ‘Shadows’ is the name given to these. Here, I felt I was probably closest to seeing inside the artist’s mind, but there I go again seeking explanations for the abstract. In contrast, the light blue shades with patches of purple and white in that painting over the concierge’s desk I felt was the most enigmatic. Its title was ‘Rain in Sunlight’ but I saw no rainbow.
Another way this show gives variety is in that the artist uses different material and methods. There are canvass and oils, but in some pieces he adds strips of cloth to create a three- dimensional effect. He only uses frames in one series – namely ‘Force’- and this certainly has good effect. It grabs your attention and pulls you into the centre of the works. One painting with its long bands in different colours brought to mind flags. I thought of them flying in the wind at a Mongolian religious mound. But then again, I also thought of towels hanging out to dry on a washing line. If abstract art is meant to open your eyes and heart to thoughts and feelings, it was doing its work here. I recommend only looking at a title after observing the painting itself for a while. The artist calls this one ‘Blue Skies and Fairy Tales’.

Tran Van Thao’s artworks

I saw the exhibition twice; once with my teenage daughter who is a budding artist herself and then I returned alone a few days later. Mr Thao is certainly an artist with a following. All I could see the first time were congratulatory bouquets. ‘Where are the paintings?’ I asked my daughter. They were hidden away behind the flowers. My daughter pointed out the artist seemed to have an obsession with numbers. In one picture this is obvious – they appear in large, black Japanese calligraphy style and are a main theme. But in others, you have to seek them out. The Mailbox appears to have been painted over brown newspaper. You can make out sports match scores- Braves 7- 2 Phillies.
I hope I have whetted your appetite. There is currently not only food and beverage available at the Sofitel, but also sustenance for the soul and heart. It is a free show and there are not many of those around these days. If you like a picture very much and feel you might want to own a piece of modern Vietnamese art by a popular artist, please contact the gallery address below. It would provide a talking piece and not only impress but also provide emotional warmth for visitors and guests.

Exhibition of the work of Tran Van Thao at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza at 17 Le Duan, District One, HCMC, till 22 November.
Enquiries to Galerie Quynh at 65 De Tham Street, District One, HCMC. Tel: (08) 3836-8019 email:

By Pip de Rouvray