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Ten Iconic Vietnamese Women as Drawn by Illustrator Camelia Pham

If you had to pick the 10 most iconic female figures in Vietnamese history, who would make the list?

Would the top 10 include fierce warriors from millennia past, literary visionaries, or modern-day activists? Illustrator Camelia Pham was given an opportunity to make her own list, and she turned these badass women into a set of 10 badass posters, just like the impressive souls they represent.

The illustrations are part of the 100 Women Project by Daisie. Camelia was invited to participate in the project by fellow artist Tara Anand from India, and she picked Hai Bà Trưng, Bà Triệu, Dương Vân Nga, Nguyên Phi Ỷ Lan, Bùi Thị Xuân, Hồ Xuân Hương, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Võ Thị Sáu, Nguyễn Thị Định, and Xuân Quỳnh.

Hai Bà Trưng: a pair of sister military leaders who rebelled against the first Chinese domination of Vietnam.

Some were empresses, some were pioneering poets, some risked imprisonment and death to rebel against oppressors; some were well-known for their sensitive inner soul, some defied societal expectations and triumphed in traditional male roles, some poured their heart out in emotional stanzas — as different as they were, their unique demeanor and character were captured on Camelia’s artworks with aplomb.

There’s a poetic quality to the way she makes use of imagery, composition and color palettes to reflect the personalities and life stories of these figures. In the Nguyễn Thị Định poster, a bloodied guillotine and a decapitated dove are prominently featured, a parallel to the dark era when Định’s hometown, Ben Tre, was inundated by gory deterrent tactics. The striking symmetry of the Hai Bà Trưng and Bà Triệu pieces, and fiery shades of the Bùi Thị Xuân portrait, make them the most visually mesmerizing of the bunch.

Bùi Thị Xuân: one of the five most important female figures of the Tây Sơn Dynasty. She was a sterling martial artist and sword fighter.

Camelia admits to Saigoneer via email that she wasn’t very knowledgeable of Vietnamese history before, because the subject was “taught in such a dry way” during her formative years. But the decision to take part in the 100 Women Project prompted her to dig deeper and get in touch with this aspect of Vietnamese culture. “I originally wanted to just focus on warriors and political women, but I also found the poets to be very important figures in the shaping of Vietnamese culture and the inspiration of Vietnamese women,” she explained. “They certainly deserved their place in the top 10.”

Across Camelia’s portfolio, including the 10 illustrations of female figures, a gentle, muted mood permeates her color choices. Blues are rarely electric or a bright azure, but under-saturated and soft. Bubblegum pink or neon yellow seem non-existent. This, coupled with the use of grains, gives the illustrations an old-time touch, as if they came straight out of vintage art books.

Nguyễn Thị Định: the first female general of the Vietnam People's Army and the longest-surviving member of the ten women in these illustrations. She passed away in 1992.

She shared that arriving at a distinctive personal style has been a slow process. “A few years ago I could only draw humans, which is really the only element I used to convey the message of the piece,” she said. “Since then I've added more detailed backgrounds and graphic symbols in vibrant colors, which helps to embody many different parts and angles of the message.”

The 10 illustrations of Vietnamese female icons are a new point of pride for her because it was proof that she could employ that cultivated personal style into a major project, she said in an interview with Vietnam Illustrators Club.

“Usually, my artworks are very eclectic; I’ve always wanted to use Vietnamese imagery in my work, but it just feels out of place. Not only that, I rarely can follow a long-term project; I usually paint individual pieces because I’m very eager to try new styles if I see them,” she explained. “This set [of illustrations] proved to me that I’m not lazy and I don’t need to observe other people’s style for my work to have a strong Vietnamese flavor.”

Bà Triệu: a famous warrior of 3rd-century Vietnam who rode into battle atop an elephant.

Camelia Pham, whose real name is Trà, is from Hanoi, but graduated from the graphic design program of the Frosinone Academy of Fine Arts in Italy. While she has finished her studies and is eager to start a career in Vietnam, she’s been stuck in Italy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like a lot of young Vietnamese pursuing a path in creative arts, she was faced with a dilemma of whether to pick a discipline that’s “suitable for establishing a stable life,” or one that nurtures passion. She ended up picking art over business and later working mainly as an illustrator instead of a graphic designer.

“I found it more eye-opening that way, to take a different study direction than the one my course was leading me down, so that it didn't dry out my passion for illustration. Still, the academy helped me build up my style in some ways, especially through my psychology of art course. If I had to choose again, I don't think I would want to change anything,” Camelia shared.

Empress Ỷ Lan: A cunning monarch who married Emperor Lý Thánh Tông and gave birth to Emperor Lý Nhân Tông.

Hồ Xuân Hương: a poet and symbol of female intellect who was well ahead of her time and unmatched by her male counterparts.

Empress Đại Thắng Minh (better known as Dương Vân Nga): The first woman in Vietnamese history to be married to two emperors.

Bà Huyện Thanh Quan: One of the most prominent Vietnamese female poets, known for her pensive poems and their masterful use of natural landscapes as imagery.

Võ Thị Sáu: A young revolutionary who lobbed grenades at French soldiers. She was captured and executed before she turned 18.

Xuân Quỳnh: The OG wave icon.

Check out more artwork by Camelia Pham on her Behance page here.

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