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Dedicated few protect coal art from oblivion

Update: December, 25/2012 - 18:37


Survival battle: Phan Thi Cong checks a statue. The art was brought to Viet Nam by the French. — VNS PhotoQuach Duong
Raw state: Coal selected to be used for making fine arts products.
Roar talent: A lion (above) and a buffalo made from coal.
The Phan Thi Cong family in Ha Long City is among only three in the city who maintain a little known craft of their forefathers. Quach Duong and Trung Hieu reportBefore visiting the Quang Ninh coal mine area, we pictured coal cellars deep under the ground and vast coal fields. We had no idea that in a small corner of this land, coal provides a medium for fine art.

Coal art was once a central part of these people's cultural identity, but today, it plays an increasingly small role in their lives. We had difficulty finding the workshop of the Phan Thi Cong family in Le Thanh Tong Street, Ha Long City -one of only three families in the city who maintain the craft of their forefathers.

Filled with statues of lions and buffaloes and pictures of landscapes crafted with exquisite and meticulous lines, the works express both the creativity and determination of the coal processing workers.

"Coal sculptures are as hard as ceramic products, so they can last a long time," Cong said. "To make our products as durable as ceramics, the maker has to seek out a special kind of coal. In Quang Ninh there are only three places - Deo Nai, Cao Son and Cam Pha - that have coal that can be used to make art products."

After they find good quality coal, she explained, artisans cut it into blocks with a chainsaw. These blocks are cut into smaller and smaller pieces and then shaped with paring knives and awls. Finally, the artisans smooth the surface twice - once with sandpaper and once with silk cloth - to make the piece look shiny and beautiful.

"The most difficult and time-consuming part is creating the contours of the shape. If even a tiny detail is wrong, that piece must be discarded," she said.

A skilled worker takes about a week to come up with a finished product, while novice workers usually need two or three weeks.

Each finished coal sculpture or painting costs about VND350,000 (US$16).

"We don't have too many customers - mostly tourists - but for us quality is more important than quantity. Our goal is not to make mass-produced souvenirs, but to preserve our traditional craft," she says.

As we walked around Ha Long City, we met artisan Nguyen Xuan Nguyen, 70, on 25/4 Street.

He said that coal art emerged in the early 20th century, brought to Viet Nam by the French, who opened a workshop specialising in making paintings and other fine art items from coal. The colonists also offered training classes for local residents to learn how to produce these goods, which were then sold in France.

After 1954, when the French lost the war in Viet Nam and withdrew from the Northern part of the country, the coal art workshops were also dissolved.

Some time later, the creation of a new workshop, the Hong Gai Arts and Crafts Co-operative, brought many former coal artists back into the job.

However, inefficient management led to troubled sales, which eventually resulted in the co-operative being dissolved in 1986.

Cong's family has been attached to this craft for three generations. But the occupational health hazards make younger family members reluctant to continue in their parents' footsteps.

"Perhaps my children and grandchildren won't want this job because it is both toxic and labour-intensive," she said. "If we want to do this job we must have proper equipment, such as a vacuum cleaner and special masks, or else many will suffer from lung disease."


Toxic medium: Coal sculptors need skill and patience. Occupational health hazards make younger family members reluctant to continue in their parents' footsteps.
Previously, many craftsmen had to go to the doctor regularly to prevent pneumonia caused by coal dust, so young people don't want to continue the craft today, she explained

At present, there are only six coal artists in her family. Ranging in age from 70-80, they work two hours a day.

"These elders are devoted to the craft," she said. "When the Hong Gai Co-operative disbanded, they held onto their tools, and sometimes even brought home coal to turn into fine art. Now they're trying to encourage the young generations to learn how to make coal art products. They're determined not to let the craft disappear into oblivion." — VNS

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