When the world started to see Vietnam’s contemporary art

Suzanne Lecht moved to Hanoi after she read about a group of Vietnamese modern artists, making it her mission to find and help them emerge from the shadows of censorship and the American embargo. Since then she has opened a globally recognized art gallery and helped establish the international market for contemporary Vietnamese art. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

Read the Full Transcript


    Next: a look at the growing contemporary art market in Vietnam.

    For years, artists there created works around the country's many wars. Today, there is a thriving international art market, one developed and curated by an American gallery owner.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre has our story.

  • SUZANNE LECHT, Art Vietnam Gallery:

    The painting is entitled "Hope," the hope for the future. You see the figure walking on lotus, which is a symbol of purity in Vietnam. And the double fish is the sign of prosperity. It's all about happiness, prosperity, sense of well-being and a sense of hope for the future.

    We, as Americans, know nothing about Vietnam as a culture, and certainly we don't know anything about contemporary art in Vietnam. So, I thought I could come and work with these artists, and in some very small way, you know, be a little drop of water in the ocean of reconciliation between America and Vietnam.

    So, I literally just called a moving company and said, pack me up. I'm moving to Hanoi.


    This is a long ways from Kansas or Montana, where Suzanne Lecht grew up and studied art history. She came to Hanoi 20 years ago, without ever having seen the place before. She did so after the unexpected death of her husband. And since then, she has created a new life for herself and an international market for contemporary Vietnamese art, a form of expression that was totally alien to post-war Vietnam.


    So, it wasn't that this wasn't a sophisticated artistic culture. It was very sophisticated.

    But from 1930 to 1980, they're documenting all these wars. So then it was, after the war ended, all of a sudden, there was no more wars to document. And that was really the beginning of. And the Gang of Five really started that road to really contemporary art in Vietnam.


    After reading an article about the group of Vietnamese modern artists dubbed the Gang of Five, Suzanne made it her mission to find them and help them emerge from the shadows of government censorship and the American embargo, which made their work difficult to find and virtually impossible to sell.

    She managed to find one of them, Ha Tri Hieu, on her first week in the country.


    When he went to the fine arts university, there, he was exposed to great masters of painting from Europe. So you're seeing this kind of wonderful fusion of their Western education along with their traditional folk art.

    It was the first generation of artists to be working in a time of peace in literally hundreds of years. So, all of a sudden, they weren't required to do propaganda or very nationalistic works of art. And they started painting their hopes and their dreams.

  • HA TRI HIEU, Painter (through interpreter):

    During the war, I went to the countryside and had a lot of friends who were painting. And I slowly changed my medium. I began to feel the emotion and passion for painting the countryside, my friends and family, and cows.


    So, this initially was your gallery, and then you live upstairs?


    Yes. Yes.


    Her dream of opening an art gallery started in her home, a traditional country house one of the Gang of Five artists helped her disassemble in the country and reconstruct above her apartment in the heart of Hanoi.

    This is where she would bring visitors to see and learn about the art, somewhat privately at first, before the government gradually relaxed its restrictions on public art exhibitions.


    Well, in the very early '90s, there were only — as far as art goes, there was a government exhibition center. And everything that is shown there, and this is still true today, you have to submit a photograph of work to the Ministry of Culture to get approval.

    But, that said, I think, generally, over the years, it's become easier. The artists are pretty free to express themselves. And anything that's really negative about the government, you would have trouble showing today.


    Suzanne finally opened her first public gallery in downtown Hanoi in 2002 and started to attract both local and international buyers.


    We have had many big collectors. Leon Black, one of the biggest collectors in America, came in on his private jet for a day, and came to the gallery.

    I had Mick Jagger. I suppose — I think that was everybody's favorite, just because he's such a rock star.


    Vietnam's economic growth has been exponential since its adoption of a market-based economy and the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo after diplomatic relations were restored in 1995.

    Luxury goods, once unfathomable here before and after the war, are an extreme symbol of the rampant consumerism sweeping the country. The local fashion and art scene has also blossomed for a new generation of Vietnamese, which has little reference to either the war or the socialist austerity of the past.


    So, this particular piece is about the social transformation of the country.

    Here, you have the nouveau riche, the advertisement of the luxury goods that are only available to a very small percentage. And the rest of Vietnam is down here. So it's this artist's depiction of the inequality of the social transformation.

    This is the work of Dinh Thi Tham Poong, who is an ethnic minority artist, which, you know, the ethnic minorities are quite marginalized. So the fact that she has come to Hanoi from growing up in the mountains very poor, and gone through the art school, and become our most well-known internationally female artist is a huge achievement.

  • CATHERINE KARNOW, Photographer:

    I want to start by thanking Suzanne Lecht. When she offered me her gallery space, it was absolutely a dream come true.


    Suzanne's Art Vietnam Gallery recently featured the photography of Catherine Karnow, the daughter of correspondent and historian Stanley Karnow, who wrote the seminal "Vietnam War: A History."


    Every time I came back from a trip to Vietnam and shared my photographs with my father, he was astounded.

    When you look at a photograph, for example, of the girl dancers on the stage of a Hennessy launch in Saigon, you would have never seen anything like this just a few years ago. When I first came in the early '90s, it was dark, austere, very poor. Today, you see self-expression, creativity. You see the young people perhaps thinking outside the box, an explosion of not only business, but art, design.


    One of the many things I have loved about in this exhibition is that I have noticed there's a whole new young generation of Vietnamese that are coming that are wanting to know about their country, what happened and also art.


    Just as Suzanne Lecht never had a business plan when she came to Vietnam more than 20 years ago to help kick-start the modern art business, she doesn't have an exit strategy either.


    I feel it's been not only a very exciting, challenging, amazing journey, but I think what I have learned about life and about myself has just been the most marvelous intellectual exercise that I could have ever experienced.


    For the PBS NewsHour, Mike Cerre reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Listen to this Segment