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An Ode to Vietnam’s Identity Amidst Modernization via 28 Years' Worth of Photos

Comprising 28 years' worth of photos, the Punk Dragon exhibition makes older visitors feel nostalgic and younger ones pause and think about changes.

Currently on showcase at Matca Space for Photography in Hanoi, the exhibition “The time has come to rekindle the stars” presents more than 50 photos of different landscapes across Vietnam by the French artist duo Bérengère Despax (BiBi) and Nadège Simard.

A major part of the exhibition is made up of the Storybox collection, which consists of 48 wooden-framed photographic collages telling personal stories through cut-outs and superimposed pictures.

The remaining photos were taken of Vietnamese people on motorbikes from the back, attached on old metal motorbike license plates that are rarely seen nowadays.

The exhibition is part of Photo Hanoi ’21, a series of events run by the French Institute in Hanoi (L’Espace) celebrating storytelling through a camera’s lens.

Taking a closer look at the Storybox collection, visitors can expect to be blown away by the attention to details put into making the photo collages, as well as the emotions woven in the narrative description of each "box of story."

"I come from a home that some would call a hut and others would call paradise. Sa Pa 2007, Cao Bang 2008."

"I come from a moment when someone you love has left you. Ho Chi Minh City 2019-2018-2006."

The photos were taken by Nadège Simard herself while she travelled across Vietnam, with the oldest one dating back to 2005. But that was not when her connection with the Southeast Asian country began.

“My husband is half Vietnamese,” Nadège, who is currently living in France, tells Urbanist Hanoi via Whatsapp. “He was born in France, but his mom had four sons in Vietnam, so we have seven nieces and nephews in Vietnam, in the north. So we always have family in Vietnam, four Vietnamese families, and since 1991 we have been in contact with them. We visited their families who only speak Vietnamese, so when we are with them, we’re like Vietnamese. We believe like the Vietnamese.”

Nadège first came to Vietnam in 1991, and from 1995 she lived in Hanoi, Da Lat and Saigon before going to Cambodia and coming back a few years later. “So I know all of Vietnam, everywhere. I’ve been 10 times, everywhere,” she says. “All these photos in the exhibition are, I don’t know, maybe not even one percent of what I have.”

"I come from a place where opportunities are ringing my doorbell. Ho Chi Minh City 2019, Hue 2006, Ho Chi Minh City 2018."

"I come from a life of adventure. Sa Pa 2007, Cao Bang 2007."

"I come from grandmothers and storytellers. Ho Chi Minh City 2018"

Bibi shares that the idea for the Storybox collection came from a wish to preserve the things that are disappearing. “Nadège said 'I had all these pictures, and what I love about the pictures is disappearing right now,’” Bibi recalls from a conversation with Nadège. “And it’s not the things in the tourist books or what we often say about Vietnam — like the rice fields and everything.

“We really would like to have a conversation with the Vietnamese people that love talking to tourists. And I really love this idea. And that matches with the work I did in Jakarta, I did the same with the very industrial style, ‘kitsch’ and urban. And I want to talk about the ideas that we don’t find very often.”

The photos were taken in Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Sa Pa, Hoi An, Hue, as well as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne, Can Gio, and Buon Ma Thuot, from 2005 to 2019. Details from the photos were cut out, and then layered upon each other to create photo collages with a three-dimensional effect. Each collage has its own caption, but all start with the phrase "I come from," which serves as "a description of where Vietnam is," shares Bibi.

"I come from a country full of history. Hue 2006, Sa Pa 2007, Ho Chi Minh City 2018."

About the inspiration for the captions, Bibi says: “Because I’m travelling a lot, and Nadège also, we have these descriptions regarding our kids, like, sometimes when they heard the question ‘Where are you coming from?’ They don’t know anymore what to answer because they are French, going to English schools, living in Vietnam. So at one moment, they don’t know anymore how to answer this question." 

“And then I was really touched with this poetic idea of ‘I come from,’ and I think this is such a strong concept. Because if you just say ‘I come from the mangrove caves of my grandma,’ and maybe I’m coming from the mangrove caves of my grandma too, then we’re already close, even if I am French, even if you are Vietnamese.

“So I think, because the boxes were all handmade they have a special soul, and the title also, ‘I come from’ — it means that you don’t stay outside the boxes with an objective point of view. You are already talking to the stories inside the box.”

"I come from a generation so adapted to change. Chau Doc 2007, Ho Chi Minh City 2019-2008."

The collection took one year to create, with Nadège in France and Bibi in Ho Chi Minh City. The two discussed ideas and the photo boxes’ prototypes over the phone. Helping Bibi in Ho Chi Minh City are the local families that run their own craft businesses.

Photo courtesy of Punk Dragon.

The landscapes and people captured in the photos have touched many visitors, according to the two artists. Bibi says: “Even though the pictures are not so old, I think the way we’re telling the stories and what we try to create is really linked to this moment when Nadège discovered Vietnam in the 1990s. Even one person who knows us and works for us, when she looked at all the storyboxes, she cried.”

Nadège adds: “I have a Vietnamese friend in Hanoi who went to the exhibition and called me afterward to say she was so touched to see the old time, everything is gone now, and she was very touched about what she saw. They made her remember her dad, her mom and family and the countryside and everything she loved before, and she was really touched.”

"I come from being unable to stop missing you. Ho Chi Minh City 2008-2018."

Nadège shares that the most important thing to them is Vietnamese people come and see their work. “Of course we want people from abroad to watch what we do and work […] But the most important thing for us is any kind of Vietnamese people come to our exhibition to watch, to look, to just see,” she says.

“Even the person on the street — passing by while selling kitchen stuff — she comes and stops her bicycle and goes up, and is inspired by the exhibition. That’s really important, even the paperboy, the taximan, anyone. For us, the most important thing, the reward, is Vietnamese people writing: ‘Oh, it’s so great, I cried, I loved it, it’s beautiful. I want to bring my mom and my grandma and my grandpa to see it’. For us, that’s the reward.” 

The exhibition is on show until May 29, 2021. You can also visit Matca for a virtual tour. 

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