SINGAPORE: Talking to Vietnamese artists Le Duc Hai and Le Ngoc Thanh can be a disorienting experience. They both dress in a funky way and sport tattoos, have the same long hair and goatee, wear shades and nose rings, and finish each other’s sentences. But that is probably to be expected when you are dealing with twins.
The 41-year-old brothers, who go by the collective name Le Brothers, are among the rising stars in Vietnam’s contemporary art scene. And for the past decade, they have been using their identities as twins to explore a single theme: The effects of a war that once split their country in two.
This is evident in their first solo show in Singapore, titled North-Center-South. Organised by Chan Hampe Galleries and currently up at the former Louis Vuitton space at Raffles Hotel until Feb 9, the show features lacquer portraits of Ho Chi Minh and other prominent communist leaders; military uniforms and Mao suits flamboyantly embellished with embroidered motifs; and portraits of people who lived in what was then North or South Vietnam.
Le Brothers' exhibition North-Center-South explores the world of post-war Vietnam. (Photo: Chan Hampe Galleries)
CLOSE TO HOME
For the brothers, who were first introduced to Singapore audiences with a video work at the Singapore Biennale in 2013, Vietnam’s recent divided past was an issue that hit close to home - literally.
The brothers were born in 1975, just 27 days before the reunification of the country. They grew up in the province of Quang Binh in what was then North Vietnam and they now both live in the city of Hue, which is just 100 kilometres south of the infamous 17th Parallel that had divided Vietnam.
“We were born in the north and we live in the south. If our country wasn’t united now, then who are we? It’s a big question for us. The concept of North and South Vietnam made us think a lot as artists,” said Hai, citing parallels to other countries that are or were politically split, such as Korea and Germany.
Their parents had first-hand experience of the war but by the time the brothers were born, it was nearly over. Even so, the effects were still all around them. “We basically had a poor life. There were no temples, culturally there was nothing for children to look to or believe in because of the war and the American bombs. But my hometown had a library and we read a lot,” said Hai.
Le Brothers' Le Duc Hai (left) and Le Ngoc Thanh. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
Art also proved to be a way out of their situation. “When we finished high school, we didn’t know what jobs we’d have and we didn’t know how to manage our lives. But we had one uncle who was a painter for the government and he had a good life. So my father asked us if we wanted to be artists and we said yes!” recalled Thanh, with a smile.
But even government-sanctioned artmaking was not good enough. After studying in Hue, they would eventually decide that making portraits for government officials and doing art projects for the state just was not their thing.
The two branched out to teaching and curating, while also doing their own respective works, which were mostly tourist-friendly paintings.
“We used the time to make very beautiful paintings for decoration and to sell to tourists,” said Hai.
THANK YOU, STARBUCKS
It was not until 2008 when the twins joined forces to officially make art as Le Brothers - and Starbucks had a say in that.
“When we would travel overseas and buy coffee at Starbucks, they would always ask for our names, but they don’t understand Hai or Thanh - they’d say it’s too long. So we’d say we were Le - two letters. So we later thought, we’re brothers, we look like best friends, why not make one name for two people? We say we’re Le Brothers and work together? All because of Starbucks coffee,” said Hai, with a laugh.
(Photo: Chan Hampe Galleries)
With a brand new name, the brothers forged a new identity. They left behind their tourist-friendly paintings and went into contemporary art.
And they have certainly been busy - they have been juggling many different projects at the same time, crossing into performance art and video art. One of their projects entails taking photos together every single day as a kind of diary documentation.
And because they are based in Hue - a city that is more known for being a UNESCO heritage site, and is overshadowed by the more prominent art centres of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - they have been relatively free to explore their art the way they want to.
They also adopted a kind of pay-it-forward attitude in their artmaking. Around the same time they came up with the Le Brothers moniker, the two artists started the New Space Arts Foundation. The non-profit arts space opens its doors to residencies for artists in Vietnam and all over the world, as well as for exhibitions and other events. To date, it has hosted 120 events and 40 artist residencies.
Despite their busy schedules, they have also had time to run, with the help of their families, an F&B business on the side - a Japanese restaurant called Kyodai (which means “brother” in Japanese) that is now a popular eating haunt.
"SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT"
Despite the Le Brothers’ success, the themes they have explored in their art continue to be somewhat contentious. Despite being a united country once more, Vietnam’s northern and southern sides still tend to get on each others’ nerves, they said.
“It’s same same but different,” said Hai. “The weather is different, the cultures and accents are different (between north and south Vietnam).”
Added Nguyen Minh Ngoc, project manager of the New Space Arts Foundation: “The mindset of people from the northern and southern areas are not (similar) and there’s still much conflict going on. The people from the south sometimes don’t like those from the north and vice versa.”
One example of the tensions came up in 2014, during an exhibition of a series of paintings for a project called Before 86, which referred to the economic reforms in Vietnam in 1986. The paintings had included soldiers wearing uniforms associated with the southern, pro-American side during the Vietnam War. These were not allowed to be shown in Vietnam.
“That’s the thing, Vietnam is united but why would these paintings be blocked? They didn’t want to show these southern soldiers,” said Ngoc.
(Photo: Chan Hampe Galleries)
Post-war Vietnam is something the Vietnamese continue to come to terms with, but even outsiders still have their misconceptions, said the brothers.
“When people ask where we come from and we say Vietnam, they go ‘Oh, the American War, you’re poor, the Communists control you. They don’t understand but they talk. They haven’t been to our country but talk as if they already know (everything),” said Hai.
“But even if we’ve lived for a long time in my country, we still learn something new every day - the life, the culture, the people. We still try to look and understand.”