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Saigon Skill and the Rise of Alternative Art Projects

Saigon Skill’s first art group show was a vibrant and uplifting display of Saigon’s unheralded talents. Hopes are high that this new project will expose the untapped creatives in the city.

An ever-growing number of individuals, art amateurs and grassroots art groups have been regularly and independently organizing cultural events in Saigon’s bars and outside of art galleries for years. For a long time, their efforts seemed confined to separate foreign or local audiences, and their impact on the larger art scene, as well as society overall, was barely visible.

In the last two years, however, this divide has shrunk, and the contributions of these groups have reverberated outside of their niche. This is evident by the fact that art galleries and art professionals have slowly welcomed such creatives into their circles. Dia Projects, which regularly attracts a diverse audience to its exhibitions and educational events, has introduced newer local artists, who previously had only exhibited at local venues such as deciBel, alongside prominent international and national talents. Illustrator, writer and painter Khoa Le was picked up by Craig Thomas Gallery after appearing in the second edition of Saigon Artbook, making her the first digital painter and illustrator represented by the established gallery. Vin Gallery has also featured artists such as Kristopher Kotcher after he was seen at Saigon Outcast and deciBel. Finally, Saigon’s newest art space, The Factory, has opened its doors to the cultural projects of amateurs and young artists.

However, after talking with the organizers of Saigon Skill Vol. 1 and viewing their first group exhibitions, I wondered if this new art project might be the missing link needed to strengthen the connection between independent artists and professional art, bringing to light the dynamic creative output lurking in the underground art world.

“I’d like to have it as a recurring art group in Saigon because I feel that the city has a lot of talented people. I’d like to host it every other month, and I’d like to merge foreign audiences and artists with the Vietnamese ones,” says Adam Palmeter, an artist and the curator of the show.

After previously living in Seoul, the New York-raised, self-taught artist moved to Vietnam less than a year ago. He has quickly immersed himself in the local cultural community. For example, he won the Big V Comedy competition (he has been performing comedy for six years) and has produced comedy shows. Alongside his own abstract paintings, he has included pieces by Saigon-based street artists DAOS501 and Suby One in the show, along with monochrome small-scale photographs by Canadian writer and artist Eric Keeping.

'Suby One and Adam Palmeter in front of Suby One's abstract paintings.

As the show’s name suggests, it is all about Saigon, or more specifically, how the city and the artists endlessly feed one another. Skeptics will be won over by the contagiously optimistic way in which Palmeter sees and talks about this relationship and the undiscovered talents. “The city itself and the lifestyles give a real relaxed feel, a sense of freedom, which informs the artworks that have been created,” he shares. Palmeter continues, “[Saigon] has a sense of here and now, but there’s some grit to the city compared to other places like in South Korea, where everything is spick and span.”

While many may complain about the shortage of art institutions and art literature resources that the Vietnamese art community faces, among other limitations, Palmeter rightly focuses on the positives. Unlike in cities like New York, where the art world is over-saturated and upcoming artists have to navigate their way through daunting channels, Saigon’s environment allows new individuals who might not have exhibited before to find an audience and present their works at local venues.

In fact, this exhibition reflects the grit and freedom that Palmeter is talking about. Canadian artist Keeping’s photographs capture small, otherwise forgettable areas of the city - what he calls “notable little nothings” – which he remembers and visits to inspire passages of his current novel. Meanwhile, Palmeter’s piercing, chromatically dark paintings about the shuttered “end of the world” are made using non-traditional materials (chopsticks, spray paint and Rust-Oleum enamel). Human nature and its grotesquely comic, raw and animalistic aspects make an appearance in DAOS501’s street-styled paintings, while Suby One merges the zeitgeist of the US Color Field movement of the 1940s with his French-Vietnamese graffiti background.

Eric Keeping's photographs.

“This first one [show] was a learning experience. I wanted a graffiti feel, but finding a theme was very hard for me because it is very strange to tell artists what to do,” Palmeter explains. He goes on, “however, when I started to reach out to the artists, I explained my idea and the vision I had in mind and then I let them come up with what they wanted, to empower the artists. I had seen their works before and I was confident in their creativity.”

After meeting many artists through word-of-mouth and cultural outings across the city, Palmeter believes that the time is right to recognize them and bring people together through regular shows. “I think that this could be a platform to attract audiences, and also for galleries to see new artists,” he says.

There is a common misconception that independently organized fine art shows, street art festivals and newcomers are just there to fill up the Facebook calendars of bars, or for artists to self-indulgently throw a party and have their friends come to see their newest creations. While no one is saying that everyone out there is the next Jackson Pollock just waiting to be discovered, this perception is partly the result of the old notion that an artist or movement is not relevant until an art critic or exclusive gallery recognizes it. Studies in countries with far more active cultural scenes show that the awareness of, for instance, amateur arts in society as a whole is rarely considered. Saigon is not immune to this, but it does have a tightly linked group of underrepresented “real” artists, who often work together and share ideas and thoughts. They are an essential part of the fabric of the city’s community and lifestyle.

We do not need a gallery to show us these artists, and now, thanks to projects like Saigon Skill, it is much easier to find them.

Saigon Skill Vol. 1 will be on display until September 19 at La Canalla

La Canalla

44E Pasteur, D1

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