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Ancient painting genre revived with family tradition

It's a bright sunny day in Ho Village in the northern province of Bac Ninh, and locals awake to the sound of machines printing votive money for the dead as they set about their daily routines.

Ancient painting genre revived with family tradition hinh anh 1

Nguyen Dang Hieu works on a painting. 



In contrast, it's relatively quiet insidethe Folklore Cultural Exchange Centre run by master artisan NguyenDang Che, who has ignored technical advancements and instead chooses tocontinue creating folk paintings by hand.

Pressing a woodblock with paint onto a piece ofpoonah paper, Che's 22-year-old grandson, Nguyen Dang Hieu, then carefullymake a painting.

The result is vivid images of amouse wedding with the bride and groom accompanied by a longprocession.

He then puts the paper aside to let it dry andstarts on another piece. Surrounding Hieu, his father, uncles are busy as well.

They are all descendants of artisan Che, who hasbeen given credit for reviving this traditional form of printing inthe early 1990s.

Che is 84, but he's still fairly agile andsharp, and wanders round the workshop giving advice to his sons, daughtersand grandchildren.  

Hieu said he has learnt every stage of creatinga traditional Dong Ho painting, from drawing and mixing thecolours, to carving the woodblocks and printing.

“None of it is simple, but I've been learningsince I was six years old,” he tells Vietnam News. “I usedto play in the workshop and I gradually absorbed the craft because itwas like a game to me.”

“I’m proud to be part of a family witha traditional handicraft,” he said. “I know this career should behanded down to future generations.”

Hieu said it’s important to make peopleunderstand the art so they can help preserve it.

“I want to do more researchinto fine arts, colours, materials and methods to develop the folkpainting further and to produce different designs that suit modern life,”he said.

Hieu is one of the few young people in thevillage to pursue the old-school methods in his career, despite all 250households in the village being involved in the industry.

Together with Hieu, Nguyen Huu Dao, 29, son ofartisan Nguyen Huu Qua, is another young man, who is keen on the traditionalhandicraft.

“I think I have the responsibility to take onthe career,” he said. “I have grown up with the art and so are mychildren. I need more time to master it so I can make a living and teach mychildren.”

However, Dao is worried that the market for hisproducts is waning.

“Providing I can live on the trade, I won’thave to switch to another career and I can follow my passion,” he said.

Deep roots

According to the history books, the craftof carving woodblocks for printing books first started in Vietnam in the11th-12th century, while paintings created by the same methodappeared later. The golden time of Dong Ho paintings was in the 17th-18thcentury.

According to 90-something-year-old Le Huy Hoan,one of the oldest men in the village, the art was still common in theearly 1900s.

“I remember when I was small, people in thevillage made votive papers and paper offerings for the dead all yearround,” he recalled. “But in the seventh lunar month of the year, they wouldstart making paintings for Tet (Lunar New Year). The market in thetwelfth lunar month would gather locals selling and buying paintingson the terrace of the village’s communal house.”

Hoan said at that time, each of the 17 familiesin the village had a painting workshop. The market would open onthe 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st and 26th of the last lunar monthbefore Tet for people to buy paintings to decorate theirhomes.

He said he felt a little regret as there are nowonly three families practising the traditional craft.

Master artisan Che used to run a regular classfor young people, but now he has no students.

“Dozens of young people in the village used toattend my class, but they stopped because they can make better moneyprinting votive papers,” Che said. “I think the best methods of training willremain inside our family, where children play with the paintings, and grow uploving them naturally like their grandparents and parents.”

Tran Quang Nam, an official from Bac Ninh'sDepartment of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the province plans toimplement policies to support artisans like social health services, financialaid and promoting the sale of the paintings next year.

“The policy is a part of a dossier we arecompiling to seek UNESCO recognition for the craft as an intangibleheritage that is in need of urgent safeguarding,” he said.

The dossier will be submitted to UNESCOnext March.

Researcher Bui Hoai Son, Rector of the NationalCulture and Arts Institute, agreed with the move.

“Passion on its own is not enough,” hesaid. “That passion should be supported, facilitated and realised by economicprofits.

“If we can do that, we can help preservethe handicraft in a sustainable way.”  

Self support While waiting for support, the three remainingfamilies have found their own ways to revive the art.

Since his retirement in 1992, Che hasconcentrated on creating paintings using old woodblocks andmaking new ones.

“Now I have hundred of printing blocksfor various subjects both traditional and modern that I have created,” he said.

His products now include the traditionalpaintings and woodblocks for decoration, and also calendars,postcards, and wedding invitation cards.

The poonah paper he uses comes exclusively fromYen Phong district in the same province, and all the paints are madefrom natural materials. White is made from grinding up oyster shells;red from mountain pebbles; yellow from hoa hoe, a local flower; green fromthe leaves of the cajuput tree; and black from bamboo ash.

“In order to convince my children to followthe art, I needed to think of a way to earn more money,” he said.

He established an enterprise in 2005 to produceand sell folk paintings at home and abroad.

His workshop and museum have welcomed thousandsof tours of both foreign and Vietnamese people, who want to find out more aboutthe local culture.

The 6,000sq.m centre has also hosted childrenfrom all over the north who come to learn about the art.

“We are open throughout the year except for thefirst day of the lunar year,” he said. “Whenever visitors come, we are here towelcome them and show off our skills.”

Artisan Che said that he believes the art willreturn.

“I’m still here, and my children andgrandchildren can still make a living from the art, so I think it ishere to stay alive and will come back stronger than ever,” he said.

Artisan Qua, however, is worried there is nodemand for the paintings.

“I'm also concerned about the nextgeneration, who should get basic training and nurture a passion for theart,” he said.

“While we cannot train in large numbers, Ithink educating the family is important,” he said. “In my family, wesometimes use machines to print votive papers to make some money, but westill keep maintain the traditional craft.”  

Both Che and Qua said more Vietnamese peopleare collecting Dong Ho paintings and woodblocks now.

“When people get richer, theirintellect increases, and more people will return to their heritage,” Quasaid.

“That is what we believe so we will continue ourwork,” he said./.VNA


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