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Pictures in cloth relief - Traditional art heritage of Southern Vietnam
Date: 02/06/2020

4 years ago, Hanoi Museum exhibited 12 series of typical folk paintings of Vietnam. Along with renowned ones in the North and Central of Vietnam such as Đông Hồ, Kim Hoàng, Hàng Trống, làng Sình… was cloth reliefs in the Southern region. Why has this series of art been highly appreciated despite its young age? Obviously, it has been resulted from a long and wonderful journey of creativity and preservation of the Southern people.
Portrait of Chief Military Officer Vo Duy Tap in cloth relief on the altar at Binh Thuy Communal House (Can Tho).

Distinctive Cloth reliefs

For the Southern people, especially the Westerners, pictures in cloth relief are not strange at all. Three or four decades ago, elderly people, at their age of 70 years, often waited for a call from a rower or a biker, "Do you want your pictures on cloth relief made?” Old people sat still on a stool (or an armchair) to have themselves portrayed. They usually sat at the central table. The common seat for men was on the left of the table and women on the right side. The common posture was as follows: one hand down the thigh touching the knee; the other hand put on the table. After that, the artisan brought the finished portrait home to prepare a cloth relief. It took him 1-2 months to finish a relief, and it was sent to the customer’s home. Old people have preferred their images in cloth relief worshiped because they look real, somewhat wealthy, and good looking. Other details like a world-class altar, tiled floors, splendid house scenery ... are added in the relief, which easily pleases the elderly as their actual living conditions are sometimes not so fantastic!

Cloth reliefs are also common in many communal houses in Southern Vietnam. Binh Thuy Communal House in Can Tho City has preserved and worshiped a lot of cloth reliefs of great historical and artistic value including portraits of the gods like God of Agriculture, God of Music, God of Rites, Patron Deity Dinh Cong Chanh…. or famous Vietnamese heroes: Tran Hung Dao, Nguyen Trung Truc, Nguyen Trai, Bui Huu Nghia, Vo Duy Tap ...


God of Agriculture in cloth relief in worship at Binh Thuy Communal House(Can Tho)

According to the book "Sa Dec: Past and Present" by Huynh Minh, presented by Canh Bang in 1971, apart from growing ornamental flowers, making rice powder or jewelry... people in ancient Sa Dec earned their living by cloth reliefs, and they were famous artisans. Mr. Huynh Minh met artisan Tran Quang Huy in person, the owner of the famous “Thuy Tien” cloth relief at that time, at his home, on Tran Quoc Toan Street, Saigon. “Thuy Tien” was so famous that people called Mr. Huy as Mr. “Thuy Tien”. According to Mr. Huynh Minh, "Those who are in fond of portraits in reliefs must all know the famous name "Thuy - Tien in Sa Dec". Mr. Huy is the son of artisan Tran Quang Hien who has excelled in making horse reliefs. The Trans is famous for making votive objects, fruit, and eight-animal bowls ...

Making portraits in silk reliefs, which is now called cloth reliefs, was invented by Mr. Thuy Tien in 1948 in Sa Dec. The fascinating appeal of this art quickly spread when he was patented by the Ministry of Economy. According to Đồng Tháp xưa và nay magazine (vol.61), he made portraits in relief of the Cambodian King Norodom Suramarit and his Queen, which was greatly appreciated by the Cambodian Royal Family. Mr. Huynh Minh respectfully states in his book that it would be a great mistake and a betrayal to an artisan whose work has contributed greatly to the national art if his book did not mention Thuy Tien." But Mr. Thuy Tien was initially very reserved as the author’s invitation. He said, "Oh no, many others are more talented than I am. Being remembered is a precious reward for all artisans like me.”

Honor a division of arts

Regarding the honor for cloth reliefs to be displayed in the exhibition of 12 typical folk painting series of Vietnam more than 4 years ago, Hanoi Museum records that cloth relief was at first simply Mr. Thuy Tien's idea to replace paper portraits with cloth or silk ones on flowery curtains at funerals. Gradually, he upgraded it into a series of paintings to serve locals’ needs, mainly for worship. Later, it had much development as more landscape, events, and compliments in cloth reliefs... are used as gifts. Cloth reliefs are made as follows: First of all, the artisan sketches a portrait of people and plants with brush strokes, then uses cotton to shape it on a cardboard paper, then cover its formation with a cloth. Due to the combination of cloth lines, gouache, painting layout, the portrait in relief look real and lively.

Artisan Ho Van Tai and his wife

A few dozen years ago, artisans made quite a lot of cloth reliefs, but the most outstanding one was in Sa Dec were two artists, Mr. Thuy Tien's transmitters, Mr. Nguyen Thanh and Mr. Ho Van Tai. It was artisan Ho Van Tai and his wife that brought cloth reliefs to exhibit in Hanoi in 2016. From our interest in this unique art series, we once came to Dong Thap to meet the old couple.

Artisan Ho Van Tai is 85 years old, living in Tan My Hamlet, Tan Phu Trung Commune, Chau Thanh District, Dong Thap Province. Despite his old age, he and his wife, Nguyen Thi Bach Thuy, devote themselves to creating cloth reliefs. Mr. Tai says that he has learned how to make cloth reliefs at the age of 16 when he once went to Thuy Tien’s shop to ask for glue. Attracted by this art series, he started to consider going there for his apprenticeship. In 1954, Mr. Tai followed Mr. Thuy Tien to learn this trade. “This art series requires its artisans mainly to know how to do it, and more importantly to know how to create. Because it is an art, whether success or not requires employees to have natural resources and perseverance”- Mr. Tai shared. So many other people are studying with Mr. Tai, but not everyone can learn and be preserved to follow the profession to the end.

Thanks to such perseverance, after following his teacher to Sai Gon to start a business, in 1961, Mr. Tai opened his own Truc Lam painting shop, which was well known everywhere. He and his wife have both couple’s love and a colleague’s close relationship. They also concocted many products such as portraits, worship paintings, paintings of historical figures, landscapes relief. Compliments and charming feng shui landscapes in cloth reliefs made by this talented couple are very popular. Such topics were new, but they kept the traditional method: silk cloth was the main material, the glue was a mixture of glutinous flour mixed with rice flour and sour alum. They used pastel colors and black oil lamp soot to stretch the painting. According to him, made of this material, each painting could last up to 60 years or more.

It has been 72 years since Mr. Thuy Tien founded this art series. He and many generations after him have put all their hearts in this art, making it sublime and glory as a unique art series of the South.


* References:

- "Sa Đéc xưa và nay", Huỳnh Minh, Canh Bằng Publisher, 1971;

- "Đồng Tháp xưa và nay" (vol 61), Dong Thap Historical Sciences Association and Associated Writers Publishing House, 2018.

Source: Can Tho Newspaper - Translated by Diep Truong

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