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An interview with artist Pham Huy Thong

“I like to create multi layers of meaning in my paintings. it’s fun to play hide and seek”

Pham Huy Thong is an artist with a conscience. Raised in a politically aware family in his native Vietnam, he has gone on to create incredible works that deal with the often broken society he finds around him. Thong’s latest exhibition, Hands, is on display at the Craig Thomas Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City from October 18, 2012.

Artist: Pham Huy Thong

You have said that your parents were a big influence on your career…

Yes, they were both journalists and they used to invite their friends – novelists, journalists, playwrights, poets and critics – to our house for parties. Vietnam was very poor at that time, so a “party” usually meant a bottle of wine and a bowl of peanuts, but their conversations were very interesting. They discussed their difficult lives, society, literature, art, politics. As a small boy, I was always on my father’s lap taking in these conversations. I realised that those ideas and opinions were absorbed by my mind naturally; it was almost like having my own private group of teachers at home, even if those teachers were sometimes very drunk. Artists must have a good understanding of life and I think my parents gave me the advantage of building up my mind and knowledge in a special way.
Is this why social commentary is a big part of your work?
Growing up in that atmosphere I always had a big interest in social issues. I was ‘trained’ to form my own conclusions and when you have a lot of things in your mind you will spit it out as much as you can whenever you have the chance. As a painter, my chance to express myself is through my art. Each of my paintings has a story, with the inspiration coming from something that really happened in society.
Who are your key influences?
In Vietnam, there are three artists who have a big influence on my art. They are Le Quang Ha, Nguyen Manh Hung and Ha Manh Thang. Le Quang Ha seems to be the first artist who dared paint about provocative topics and raise his critical voice against ‘the system’. His images show scary police and hungry dogs, which seem set to jump off the canvas and eat the audience alive. He faced a lot of trouble from the administration because of his paintings. Without his first steps, it is impossible to imagine true contemporary art in Vietnam.
What are your thoughts on the Hands series? Why hands for example, and what do they symbolise?
I hope that by replacing the heads of characters with hands, the figures look weird and leave audiences wondering what these people are thinking and doing. I chose hands because hands are very ‘human’ and capable of expressing emotion. As I built up the body of work in the series, I also realised that the hands can refer to a group of people – audiences can find themselves in those faceless figures.
You have spoken before of hidden messages in your art. What are the hidden messages in the Hands series that some people might miss?
As you say, they are ‘hidden’, so these messages should not be revealed publicly on this page due to the trouble they might bring. To discover the messages, audiences may need a good understanding of what is happening in society and politics. To avoid trouble from the administrators, I like to create multi layers of meaning in my paintings. It’s fun to play hide and seek.
There is a strong maritime element to some of the work in the series…
I am referring to the recent South China Sea crisis. This is bringing tension to the relationships of many countries in East Asia. An arms race is happening, right now. I am most concerned about the fate of innocent people. You can always find small fishing boats stuck on the sea in front of those monstrous ships of war.

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