Personal stories of a life immersed in art and the magic that holds it all together
Things about Me is & Of Other Things’ series of interviews where we get to really know our interviewees by poking around their homes, looking at the things they hold dearest. Although edited and condensed their stories are told in their own words.
In the latest in our series & Of Other Things talks with Natasha Kraevskia, an integral part of Vietnam’s contemporary art scene. The Russian linguistic scholar and curator first came to Hanoi in 1983 as an employee of the Pushkin Institute. Shortly after arriving in the city she met outsider artist Vũ Dân Tân, who became her husband despite strict rules forbidding Vietnamese locals and Russian expats from mingling.
After some time living in Russia together, the pair returned to Hanoi and in 1990 opened Salon Natasha, the city’s first independent, contemporary art gallery.
“Anything in a person’s surroundings can tell you something about this person,” agrees Natasha as she offers homemade herb vodka and makes friendly chit chat that simultaneously belies and upholds her self-description of being a difficult woman.
Words and interview by Fabiola Buchele ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Photos by Yên Nguyễn
“I had a friend who also loved art, and at this time in Hanoi there was only one government run gallery. I had been and bought some silk paintings which I showed her. But she said ‘oh, what is this garbage you bought!’ She told me somebody had introduced her to an incredible artist when she was in Hanoi, she wanted to send him some souvenirs and could I bring them? She said my Vietnamese colleague would accompany me and bring me here to this address, 30 Hàng Bông.
The souvenirs were candles, milk, sugar, salt, because the Vietnamese had nothing, so this was special. And I came here and met this guy. All dressed in black. Long, curly hair, looking very unusual, very artistic. I saw many masks on the wall like this one, not this one, but exactly like it. One mask was a bit special and I asked, ‘oh what it is this? Is this a cat?’ And he answered ‘oh as you like, it can be cat, it can be mouse’ and I was so impressed by this answer, (laughs) stupid, but…
We were not talking in this room, because if people from the street could see a foreigner inside it would not be good. So we were in this small room behind this door, which was his study and his room. There were many things like sunflower seeds on the floor and he said, ‘oh you see many people come here.’ This was the 25th of December and I don’t know why but they celebrated Christmas and he said ‘you can come here, many of my friends are coming and I am single.’ He said that.
Of course I couldn’t come the next day, I am a serious girl. So after two days (laughs) I made my way here and then the love story began. This is my late husband so it was in ’83 which means like 32 years ago and I am still here. This is the story of masks, how masks can impress you.
I was working at a university and teaching our ambassador’s wife at the time and I approached her, I told her the story and asked her how [we could get permission to marry] and she said ‘ok you write a letter, but not a formal letter, you write a romantic letter addressed to the ambassador and I will give it to him at the right moment’. I think she probably did give him it to him at the right moment, maybe after drinking some wine. And she started to defend me. When I applied to the consulate, the consul was very very negative, but every time he made problems I called the wife of the ambassador. Finally we got authorisation from the Russian side. It took half a year. And the Vietnamese side was also very difficult. I actually went to the minister of foreign affairs and told them if I did not get authorisation I would burn myself at Ba Đình square. Of course I would never do that, I love myself (laughs).”
“ In Russia Perestroika had already happened and it changed things. Artists were free, artists went to the streets, staging actions in the parks, events and so on. But in Vietnam, even after Đổi Mới, in this sphere of art and culture things didn’t change right away, they began to change 10 years later. So my husband decided to come back to Hanoi, I got a position at the Pushkin Institute and we opened an independent art space where we could show more contemporary, more experimental art, organise events and so on.
But this is not like a normal gallery gallery, because it was also our house. I tried to hide some stuff, I put my shoes away, but my husband put it in the centre of the room. We had the concept of the gallery as an art space, but it was also the studio where my husband worked, and the home where we lived and a place for people to meet. To me it just happened like that, sometimes I resisted and tried to hide some domestic objects. But I think for my husband that was the idea. Me and a researcher who is doing her PHD on him discussed this. She analyses his work and thinks nothing was random in his life. It looked like it was, but everything was thought out. He liked Dada and this is surrealistic and in a Dada style, so I think there was in fact a concept behind it.
It was also a place of gathering, because many artists and intellectuals were meeting here. It had been traditional to meet here even before, because before we opened the gallery it was already the place for many writers and musicians to meet because my husband’s father was a famous playwright. His name is Vũ Đình Long and he is considered the founder of Vietnamese kịch nói or spoken drama. He translated Moliere, Cornell and also some Shakespeare into Vietnamese and then he wrote the first spoken play called Chén thuốc độc (A Cup of Poison) which was played at the Opera House in 1921. He was also a publisher and because he published many many writers who later became famous even at our wedding party in ’85 all these old guys, these writers and artists were there.
Then when my husband began to paint it also became a meeting place for painters including the famous Bùi Xuân Phái, who was here drinking a lot. He came every second day, that’s why I have many portraits of me, painted by Bùi Xuân Phái. I even lent some to a Singaporean exhibition.”
“I say it’s mine but it’s Tân’s father’s, it’s where he wrote most of his plays. And for me it’s important because this desk is also my work place. At this desk I wrote many of my articles and sat planning different projects.
I hope that I can keep it. But we are going to sell this house because mother is very old. My plan is to buy a new space and make, not a museum museum, but a memorial house for my father in law. I have kept many manuscripts, I want to make a special room for him, there should be the desk, and his book case and some other objects. And portraits drawn by my husband. During the last year of Tân’s life in 2009 he made a series of portraits of writers whom his father published.”
RICE WINE AND THE CUPS IT GOES IN
“This was a place where people were meeting, and when they are meeting, what were they drinking? The were always drinking this (motions to have some)… rượu.
This was a place for artists, writers, musicians and they always drink. When I met my husband in the 80s, they were drinking very bad rượu – quốc lủi. That’s like home-made vodka, very terrible. But when we had exhibition openings we were always serving this rượu học, and everybody liked it. We bought medicine from traditional doctors and vodka separately and put it in a big jar and produced this rượu học. Good? It’s also quite healthy. Even if you drink one bottle, if you can (laughs) – no headache. Moreover, when you drink this and decide to drink wine or champagne or beer or whatever after – no headache. After this you can mix everything. It’s magic again.
The cups were made by the French artist Eric LaRue who was living here in the 90s. He helped a lot with our art space, together we organised some conferences on art and music and many projects. He also painted these cups.”
“This is a vase of Nguyễn Văn Chung, a very important artist for contemporary art in Vietnam. He was painting and also exploring social issues, he was a very critical artist and strong. He decided to make 100 vases like this, though I think he never succeeded. But he made quite enough and they were shown in many exhibitions. They are now in the collection of the Singapore art museum. This is one of this series, but this is very special, because he usually didn’t work with this colour.
Sometimes after the exhibitions, artists gave me some presents. I have many sketches, because sometimes artists come, drink here, and sometimes leave the sketches or just give you what they have done. Also ceramics.
When we decided to stop our exhibition activity I asked artists to take their paintings and artworks, but it was very difficult. They were so lazy. For one artist I had to roll his paintings and deliver those big rolls by taxi myself. But they never took the ceramics. I called them, but nobody came. I have had to keep many, under my bed. I have another room and they are everywhere. Some plates some vases, I have some under all the furniture. Now I decided if somebody asks me to give them back their ceramics I wouldn’t, because after taking care of them for 20 years…
But the vase was an actual gift.”
This one must be from the 60s or 50s. I have more than 200 different pieces like this. I bought the first one in ’93, you could still find old ones, like this. This is made from cotton and this is from silk, they were producing threads themselves, but now they mostly buy Chinese threads. I started buying them just because I liked them so much aesthetically. But then I was really impressed by the different ornamental design, about 15 years ago I began to do research on them. Not much was written about the motifs. I had thought they would somehow be related with the mythology and the folklore of Thai people so I began to interview many of the old people. Knowledge disappears very quickly and if the old people that know the meaning of the images pass away, the young generation might never know. I’m a scientific woman, I like to research everything. If it wouldn’t be necessary to work I would study all my life.”
“This is a very important, very personal object. It is a connection to my daughter who, when she was very small, liked fairy tales very much. This tree is from a Russian fairy tale, [the three bears], though I think other people have similar stories. My daughter had a set of toys about this story, everything was in a set of three including three trees to make the forest for the house to stand in. She shared these trees, one for me, one for her and one for her father and we should all always carry one with us. So now she still has one, she is in Canada but she travels with this toy. And my husband passed away so now I have two at home. When we celebrated Tết with a friend I had it as a symbol of my daughter being here with us. When I travel it’s in my bag, I think it brings me luck. Because I have been very superstitious, ever since my childhood, because my grandmother believed in magic, she could do some kind of magic.”
“ I notice things, when I wear these and then I give a special function to this jewellery and use it for that. For example, this of course is St. Natalia. I’m orthodox, not practicing orthodox but baptised and she is my namesake. Now when I feel like somebody is doing something to me that is no good she is like my protector. So I wear this when I feel I need protection. This belonged to my mother and I think my mother loved me so she will protect me too.
So I give them meaning. When I was young a boyfriend gave me some jewellery and then we separated. And I was always unlucky and couldn’t find another boyfriend. But then one night I thought ‘oh I have to get rid of these very nice earrings he gave me’. So in the middle of the night in Russia, I was like 29 or something, I took these earrings and didn’t even just put them into the garbage, but I went into the street in the middle of the night and brought it straight to the garbage collector at two o’clock in the morning. And after that everything was…
And then this one is very important. If you wear them to a party all the men will look at you. They might be a little bit thick and a little bit heavy, but you have to suffer if you want to be the centre of the party.
And the broach. Because it was given to me by the art curator, the first one to choose my husband for a big important exhibition in Australia in ’96, I wear this when I go abroad to big exhibitions. When I put it on I have very good communication with the curators, with the art people and make new acquaintances and meet interesting people. Networking seahorse.
So now you know many things, now you can drink.”