Until 2000, it was illegal in Vietnam for gay couples to live together. Homosexuality was only removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 2001, and, despite the government decriminalising same-sex weddings in 2013, it is still largely frowned upon.
Still, there have been advances. The country held its first annual gay pride parade in 2012, and, in 2016, saw the launch of its first local gay social network, Blued, which—according to the company—sends about two million daily messages among users.
While LGBTQ equality is still a work in progress in Vietnam, contemporary artists have for decades been pioneers in this realm.
The contemporary art scene was booming in Hanoi in the 1990s. New galleries opened, foreign art collectors took an interest in this relatively unknown country and, although censorship by a watchful regime did not disappear, Vietnamese artists gained some freedoms.
Significant innovations included the appearance of performance art and of homosexual content in the artwork of Truong Tan, possibly Vietnam’s first openly gay visual artist.
Art critic Bui Nhu Huong credits him as the pioneer of Vietnamese contemporary art, and many artists in recent years have expressed their admiration for his resistance to being constrained by social and official condemnation.
The decision to show this work activated something in him. “My goal was set,” he said, explaining that he was ready to stop hiding his homosexuality and forge a career as a professional artist.
It wasn’t easy, and he kept his homoerotic drawings private for some time. Circus, in fact, references restrictions through the bound-up ankles of one figure. Ropes are a recurrent motif in Truong Tan’s artwork, symbolising his feelings about Vietnam’s conservative environment.
Circus shows a figure that appears to be powerful, controlling and abusive, and one that is twisted, inverted and powerless. It is striking that Tan’s first queer artwork represents brutal domination. In contrast, many of his later paintings show cavorting, loving and playful same-sex couples.
His first solo show opened in Hanoi in 1994, displaying an abundance of male nudes. In exhibiting these, Truong Tan tested the water for public acceptance of content that could be read as homosexual.
Facing the censors
In Ho Chi Minh City later that same year, the artist exhibited imagery that included erect penises. He later told Marianne Brown—in a February 2012 article for the Tribune Business News—that he believed this decision drove the authorities to closely monitor his work, because he didn’t heed the official guidance “not to show work that opposes the party and the government, or goes against traditional customs.”
Although Tan has never abandoned painting, he began to embrace performance in the mid-1990s; like him, it was free from rules and canons.
Since there was no local history of performance art, there were no entrenched criteria with which to judge it. Performances were as of yet uncommon events, an alternative to the more formal gallery setting, where artists risked having permission to show their work denied by the Department of Information and Culture.
In 1996, Truong Tan collaborated with the artist Nguyen Van Cuong on a performance calledMother and Child (sometimes called The Past and the Future), which took place during the closing event of an exhibition in a Hanoi gallery.
In this ten-minute performance, Truong Tan curled up on the floor, smeared with what looked like blood, and rolled around tormented by Nguyen Van Cuong’s broom, which swept him around. It’s not hard to imagine the political and the queer connotations of such a scene.
Despite his successes as an artist, by 1997 the grind of low-level restrictions spurred Truong Tan to leave Vietnam and move to Paris. The freedom he felt there surpassed his expectations.
News of his work continued to reach Asia, playing a part in regional developments. Thai curator Apinan Poshyananda stated that by 2000, the contributions of Asian artists to critical debates on postmodernism, new media and issues relating to homosexuality had changed the panorama of Southeast Asia’s art.
Truong Tan’s breakout work might not have changed laws directly, but they certainly played a part in encouraging other artists to overcome self-censorship and attempt resistance.
Today, queer cultural production is much more visible in Vietnam’s public sphere, and Vietnamese artists have continued to foster awareness of LGBT issues through their work.
The multidisciplinary artist Himiko Nguyen’s 2011 photography installation, Come Out, aimed to counteract what she sees as public ignorance on gender and sexuality issues.
Like Tan, Himiko laments the unwritten rules and constraints that she finds in Vietnamese society. Her comments indicate a thoughtful understanding of how ideology is implemented through national education and naturalised by the general population.
In a country where naked people cannot be shown in the media, Himiko admits that she chose nudes to push up against these entrenched boundaries.
The LGBTQ community continues to experience prejudice, discrimination and bullying in Vietnam, but homosexuality is slowly becoming part of mainstream culture. In 2011, the openly gay film Hot Boy Noi Loan (Lost in Paradise), directed by Vu Ngoc Dang, saw great success in and outside the country.
In 2012, the sitcom My Best Gay Friendslaunched on YouTube and became an instant hit. Its debut coincided with the first Viet Pride.
The next year, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, a founding member of the Hanoi art space Nha San Collective initiated Queer Forever, an art festival in Hanoi that encompasses art exhibitions, conferences and concerts. The Vietnamese LGBTQ community produces an art zine called Vanguard.
These contributions would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Truong Tan. By raising hope through art, he has fostered more social acceptance for Vietnam’s LGBTQ community.
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Cristina Nualart is a is a cheerful feminist, a researcher, art practitioner and education professional. Currently she is a member of the Asian Art research group GIA (Grupo de Investigación Asia) at Complutense University, Madrid. Previously she worked for four years at RMIT International University in Vietnam, where she was a lecturer and course leader in the Centre for Communication and Design. She explores art and visual culture from non-hegemonic perspectives.