History is necessarily tied to a temporary order, progress, and the relationships among them.  In this sense, lacquer objects are not a type of historical record but rather an image of a type of memory or a physical gesture. As memory, particular characteristics of lacquer - its textures, colors, brightness, shine- allow us to trace relations of similarities to artifacts and vestiges outside of its cultural territory.  For example, to suggest that the lacquer is the aesthetic origin of the first oil paintings on wood opens up a space to re-imagine another past, one more diverse and connected through images and sensations. This allows us to be aware of the vestiges of acculturation and socio-cultural exchanges lost between continents and territories when defined only by their military and ideological history.  These objects are material evidence of a similarity of the small and minor art lost in exchange and unwritten into the grand historical narratives that still persist today... 

The end of the century 19th and early 20th century occur marked changes in Vietnamese society that have left its imprint on the use of lacquer Sơn Ta to the present. In a fact that could be considered paradoxical, because it would have meant a reverse adaptation or even a territorialization of the entire history and content of oil painting to Vietnamese lacquer. In Viet Nam, under the direction of the L’Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts of L'Indochine formed under the colonial government, the first generation of students began using lacquer as a pictorial medium of self-expression, serving this time as a conductor of the modernist styles from Europe towards the Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese painters of this school pioneered pictorial techniques of lacquer merging ancient techniques of village crafts with the expressive ideals of French romanticism and modernism to create a truly hybrid art for its time constituting a deterritorialization of son ta lacquer but also a reterritorialization of oil painting.   In this same period the name "Son Mai" or "sanding painting" from Son Ta (our painting) was also introduced to distinguish the new pictorial Vietnamese natural lacquer technique from the other oil paintings that came from abroad.


Invented traditions current possibilities

During the French-Indochina war of independence between the years 1946 until 1954, revolutionary and nationalist artists propelled a series of discussions to determine the focus of culture and the arts for an independent Viet Nam.  It was a decisive moment in the crystallization of the national identity, and Vietnamese Sơn Ta again played an affirmative role in cultural life as an artistic tool in the service of propaganda.  This time the content of the lacquer image was controlled under the ideological paradigm of socialist realism.  Taking cues from the figurative movement and social realism in the Soviet Union at this time, the images produced during this period are markedly nationalist, clearly coded, and celebratory of the Communist Party and the proletarian struggle. As an indigenous resource native to the northern territory, the uniqueness of Son Mai painting was particularly important to reinforce a policy of local identity.  As such, the pictorial techniques innovated by the first generation of lacquer painters were fixed into an official canon, consecrated and legitimized by the art institutions belonging to the state and thus constituting an invented tradition.  Despite the ancient use of son ta lacquer in Viet Nam and its diverse applications, "truyền thống sơn mai " or "traditional sanded lacquer", refers exclusively to the manner of figurative representation of images with lacquer on plywood board and the painting techniques developed in the first half of the 20th century. The symbolic and revered place given to lacquer painting as artistic canon of Viet Nam instilled a sense of uniqueness and continuity with the past, but required rigid control and immutability of tradition in order to be maintained.

By end of the 1980s, the Communist Government introduced a major overhaul in economic policy and aperture to the global market that also brought about a loosening of social control on the arts.  This period Post Doi Moi is liminal period of great changes in the nature of production, consumer values, rapid globalization and technological advancement that calls to question the nature of identity and a reassessment of the recent past.  This in-between stage in which order is fluctuating is also a critical and pivotal age, and one that incites questioning and creative strategies leading up to the restructuring of paradigms.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Vietnamese son ta became a means of representation when it became lacquer painting.  Sơn mai painting is hybridization in true form, one that joins Vietnamese lacquer to a wider geneology of painting with its roots in European romanticism, but also it is an entire history of pictorial representation “becoming” lacquer. This is not just its becoming a mere collection of optical styles and art object.  Rather, painting throughout the 20th century from modernism up to our contemporary period has gone on an ontological search of itself, questioning and expanding into many forms aligned with different modes of philosophical thought and inquiry, with its own readings into critical theory, identity politics and/or visual culture. That is, painting, or the image is now an assembly of meaning with the cognitive faculties to order signs, perspectives, take part in a thought relationship between subject and object, content and representation, as well as attend to the particular will of the individual and his or her relation with the environment.  

Correspondingly, I would also suggest the development of a broader more intertextual-like strategy of approaching son mai now with acquired faculties, as a lens through which to see and order meaning as well as a rich area of artistic research.  It is no longer a traditional craft as a fixed legacy to be protected but rather can be a challenging and malleable image of the times.  This constitutes a categorical change, and one that relates this substance to relevant questions about, environment, identity and experience, memory, the nature of territory.