To pursue her passion for son mai (lacquer) painting, Japanese native Saeko Ando lived in Ha Noi for 18 years. After mastering the requisite skills, she planned to introduce the art form to the world through exhibitions, lectures and symposia. Although the materials and techniques Saeko uses are mainly Vietnamese, art critics and fellow artists agreed that a Japanese soul exudes from her work, which is currently on display at the ongoing exhibition Japan in Me at the Japan Foundation Centre for Cultural Exchange in Viet Nam. The artist chats with Culture Vulture about her lacquer devotion.
What brought you to Viet Nam and kept you here for 18 years?
I came here in 1995 as a tourist. I visited many countries before coming here (I was working for Japan Airlines before then), and I never felt so confused and unimpressed in any other country but Viet Nam. People were not so friendly and so many tried to rip me off. But then I realised that my impression must have been wrong. I did not want to make a judgment without really understanding the people here. So I decided to stay here to find out more about Viet Nam. It was during that time that I met my first master of lacquer painting, artist Trinh Tuan. Fascinated by his painting style, I asked him to teach me about son mai.
Once I tried to paint son mai, I was captivated by the art. Every year, I told myself that I would wait another year before going home. But the more I learned about son mai, more I wanted to learn.
Meanwhile, I came to understand the culture and the people here and fell in love. After several years here, Viet Nam has become the place where I belong.
To absorb as much son mai knowledge as possible, I mastered the local language. I also wanted to understand Vietnamese culture, way of life and people.
I did not care if I made a fool of myself making mistakes speaking Vietnamese because my aim was not to become a Vietnamese language master.
What was your biggest challenge while studying lacquer painting?
While many people are allergic to son ta (natural lacquer resins), I was never allergic. So I would say my biggest challenge was to adapt to the working environment here. When I was learning traditional son mai at a workshop, I did not waste any time. I was very frustrated when other craftsmen spent their working time sipping tea, smoking water pipes, or even sometimes playing chess. But after many years in the country, I know that's the way they can work in long run.
What is the advantage of being an expat artist pursuing a local art form?
I have access to information on the art of lacquer in other countries, such as Japan. When you want to understand something well, you have to have a basis for comparison.
In Japan, extensive research has been conducted on lacquer. I know so many scientific secrets about natural lacquer and how we should treat it and use it that local artists lack access to.
Another advantage is that people find me more interesting. A foreigner working on traditional Vietnamese art, able to speak Vietnamese and blending into the Vietnamese community, seems to be a interesting subject for the media in both Viet Nam and Japan. So I have been given a lot of opportunities to promote son mai.
You are the only foreign member of the Ha Noi Fine Arts Association. How do you think you got in?
I think they are a very welcoming association and if anybody else wanted to join, probably they would not reject them. It is just that I am the only foreign artist who sees herself as a part of the local art community and wants to be accepted by it.
How do you implement your mission to introduce the fascinating art of lacquer to the world?
I always take every chance I can get to introduce the techniques and history of Vietnamese son mai. My clients, who come from many countries including Viet Nam, Japan, France, the UK, Australia and Germany, appreciate my work more when they know about the art.
I also grabbed the chance to talk about the art at my solo and group exhibitions in Ha Noi, HCM City, Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Sapporo and Fukushima. — VNS