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Get to Know the Dynamic Local Art Scene Alongside 'Saigon Art Journey'

“This is not a tour, remove that word from your minds. This is an interacting and exploring journey,” explained Angeline Gong, an experienced art host known by Saigon’s artists and galleries as Z-Gong.

Experienced art host Angeline Gong, aka Z-Gong.

She offered this introduction to our small group as we gathered outside the Saigoneer / Urbanist Travel offices in District 3 in preparation for the inaugural “Saigon Art Journey with Z-Gong.” The half-day experience brings guests to two different art galleries to encounter stories about specific exhibitions, artists, movements and trends that provide a glimpse into Saigon’s dynamic art scene as it exists in 2024. Z-Gong emphasized that the morning would be one of storytelling and questions, rather than education lessons in part because the art world is far too large with too many styles, artists and histories to ever attempt any cohesive overview or exhaustive introduction. And such a strict approach wouldn’t be nearly as fun for most.

Previous Art Journey tour at TomuraLee Gallery.

By 9am, we had boarded a van and were off to the first stop of the morning. While en route, Z-Gong gave us a bit of a preview of what we would see ahead while the accompanying Urbanist Travel tour guide asked us to introduce ourselves and explain any connection with or interest in art that led us to sign up for the journey. Our diverse group included a Spanish T-shirt designer whose father is a painter; a Vietnamese flower shop owner; a Singaporean event and party organizer who collaborates with many Saigon artists of all genres; two Vietnamese marketing freelancers and a Vietnamese man who admitted that the only formal time he has spent with art was required coursework during his studies in America. The many experiences and perspectives this eclectic group brought would prove to be one of the most enriching elements of the day.

Our group at the Saigoneer / Urbanist Travel office preparing to leave for the day.

The art journey’s itinerary changes based on what exhibitions are open on any given day as well as any guest interests or requests shared ahead of time. Z-Gong and her team select the stops from amongst numerous options with an emphasis on providing a varied view of Saigon’s art. I joined during the end of May, and we were fortunate to start with a particularly interesting visit to Eight Gallery in Tân Bình. 

Artwork by Lý Trần Quỳnh Giang via Eight Gallery.

The works by artists Lý Trần Quỳnh Giang feature anthropomorphized rabbits aiming despondent stares at the viewers; owls with deep pools of melancholy in their wide eyes; gaunt hands etched on long, slender pieces of wood and haunting portraits of individuals whose faces were sagging under the weight of morose expressions. The unsettling works contain a modern unease one doesn’t associate with conventional Vietnamese artwork which is typified by lacquer depictions of the bucolic countryside and beautiful women in áo dài. This made it a refreshing exhibition, particularly because the heavy themes and emotions juxtaposed with the light and comfortable gallery rooms and the bright, sunny day outside.

After Z-Gong provided some background to the art gallery in general and Lý Trần Quỳnh Giang, in particular, she instructed us to wander around at our leisure. As people stood gazing at the works, occasionally offering their impressions to one another and taking photographs, she would pop up and join the conversations with a question or observation to share. As an interior designer for 45 years and then curator for a small art gallery, Z-Gong has a wealth of experience to draw on. During this particular exhibition at Gallery Eight, I overheard her muse about the contrast between the work’s bold, aggressive tone and the artist’s shy and reserved nature when they’d meet in person.

Photos taken during a previous visit to Eight Gallery.

While we freely roamed the exhibition viewing the paintings and flipping through the many impressive art books dedicated to Vietnamese artists who had been displayed there, a gallery staff member was also on hand to answer any questions we had. Having met her before, I was particularly interested to hear about some of the logistics of this exhibition. She explained that all the works came from the gallery owner’s private collection and he simply wanted to share them with the public. None of the works were for sale and the exhibition was only scheduled to last for several weeks, making the opportunity to view them all the more precious. The art journey’s access to docents and curators built on a strong reputation is another important part of the day, because I’m not sure I would have felt as welcomed to have such conversations had I just arrived off the street.

Gallery Eight, like most galleries that the art journey will bring visitors to, is normally open to the public. Thus, one of the true values of the experience is how Z-Gong and her team curate the itinerary, essentially selecting which galleries on any given day are the most interesting or contain the most unique stories. Another valuable element revealed itself after we’d all independently explored the gallery. Z-Gong gathered us together to reflect on what we’d seen, inviting people to share what they thought, felt or wondered about. One woman in the group brought up how the work reveals art’s power to assist in mental health challenges, connecting it to her experience in that realm. Another offered theories on the reason why some of the figures were naked and others in the same paintings were clothed. I hadn’t thought of either of these elements and felt fortunate to be sharing the morning with other people.

Z-Gong speaks to the group and invites discussion.

Before we returned to the bus to continue on our day, Z-Gong shared a few more reflections that continue to stick with me. She noted how in-person viewing of art, as compared to via screens and social media, is becoming increasingly rare, particularly among younger people. Being able to look at the works from different vantage points, examine each textured brushstrokes and smell the materials brought me much closer to the pieces and the artist by extension. I felt a connection to the work in ways that are simply impossible were I not there in person. Truthfully, I needed no convincing on the importance of offline art interactions, but this realization helped underscore the need to surround ourselves physically with art.

Photos taken during a previous visit to Bình Minh Art Gallery, one of the possible visits for the Art Journey.

Our final stop of the day provided a great contrast to the stark, museum-like Gallery Eight. Tucked down a dead end in a quiet patch of Phú Nhuận, 3B Art Gallery exists because of the passion of its gallery owner, Võ Bình. An artist as well as collector, dealer and restorer, he has been active in Saigon’s art scene for more than four decades, which is reflected in the sheer volume and controlled chaos of his gallery.

‘Trừu Tượng’ by Quách Phong. Image via 3B Gallery.

Paintings cover the wells, are stacked on the floor and are propped in corners. On the top level, metal shelves contain even more with piles awaiting restoration. He has eclectic tastes and the always-changing selection on view is a mixture of what he has recently shown and what new pieces he has acquired to sell or collect. 

‘Tình Mẹ’ by Nguyễn Hoàng Hoanh. Image via 3B Gallery

Again we were given time to explore at our leisure with Z-Gong popping up to offer details about the various artists’ backgrounds, styles, and popularity with collectors. By this point in the morning, she had developed a rapport with the different guests and understood what type of art or details each person was most interested in hearing which furthered the catered feel of the entire journey. 

‘Miêu Nữ’ by Đoàn Hồng. Image via 3B Gallery.

Finding favorite pieces felt like a glorious treasure search as traditional works hung beside strange expressionism and statues cast shadows across nearby watercolor, ink, oil and lacquer pieces. Bordering on overwhelmed by the collection's sheer size and scope, I appreciated the opportunity to decompress as a group after we’d spent time wandering. This time, Võ Bình joined us for a free-wheeling conversation. With so many incredible works, I was curious what he would say his favorite was, at that moment at least. Excited, he leaped off his chair to bring around a huge piece, nearly knocking the frame into the ceiling in the process. He explained what about the abstract piece made him most inspired which led to one member of the tour observing its similarities to Kandinsky's which resulted in our group discussing the ability to see music in the brushstrokes.

Another person in the group brought our attention to the work of Bùi Tiến Tuấn, a younger painter who recently had a show at 3B Gallery. As we discussed his uniquely colorful, jubilant style and the trajectory of his exciting career so far, our photographer noticed one of his paintings tucked in a corner. Immediately struck by the depiction of the exuberant Saigon woman, he inquired how much it cost. Buying art isn’t a priority for this art journey, and it's only possible at some of the galleries or exhibitions, but it is often an option, either on the day or via connections made and contacts gathered. Alberto left with a down payment on the first piece in his art collection.

Art Journey participants admiring art during a previous iteration at TomuraLee Gallery.

After saying our goodbyes to Võ Bình, we took a stroll to a nearby coffee shop. The air-conditioned space and rejuvenating cà phê muối allowed for general chit-chat, a chance to bond with other attendees, and even further discussion on the artwork we’d seen with guidance from Z-Gong. Some people exchanged social media accounts to connect over matters related and unrelated to art. As we got down to the last sips of our beverages, I reflected on something Z-Gong had said early. She explained that “art is not just something to hang up and get bored of. It’s something to live through and experience over time.” A morning like this is a good example for how one can continue to live through art, connecting with beauty and inspiration as part of regular existence.

Saigon Art Journey is organized by Urbanist Travel, Saigoneer's sister company. Visit their website to find out more about the tour.

[Top image taken at Bình Minh Art Gallery]

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