A group of Hanoi-based artists have transformed their creative space so their artistic dreams may continue.
Story: My Bui | Photos: Nam Lu
The closure of the artistic area in Hanoi known as Zone 9 earlier this year presented a shaky future for a number of creative enterprises such as Nha San Collectives, Consignista, Work Room Four, Enci Library, and others. Few have found a new home and finances to start over, while others have accepted that the end has come.
The young people in Nha San Collectives are better placed to speak about this than others since it is not the first tome they have been downtrodden yet risen again.
Located in Vinh Phuc Street for over a decade, Nha San was the first space for young people to experiment with their own creative efforts. Some of them including Truong Tan, Tran Luong, Phuong Linh and Phu Luc, have become significant artists in Vietnam’s contemporary art scene. For many reasons, however, the experimental art space was shut down in 2010. The younger generation of Nha San artists then moved to Zone 9, under the Nha San Collectives name. Unfortunately, after just six months, Nha San Collectives and other artists were forced to relocate following a few incidents. Several artists then teamed up with some new faces and started over in the place where they were born: Nha San Studio. They recently decided to transform the old Nha San into a café, after its 15 year-old birthday party in January. The multifunctional Nha San Studio is the mixture of a private art studio, an open creative hub, and a café.
Romantic vs Realistic
At first glance it may appear that the transformation of a private house and art studio into a café is simply a romantic notion. But their motivation was way more realistic and practical. “Nhà Sàn was a non profit - artist led art space for experimental art based at the private home of artist Nguyen Manh Duc”, said Phuong Linh, a creative leader at Nha San. “The original space was only half size of what it is now, but Manh Duc persuaded the neighbours to lease out their extensive land, which he has been renting out for the last 15 years. With the economy the way it is, we need to figure out other ways to keep the space going”. The good thing about opening a café at this spot is that there is no rent to pay and the facilities are already in place, with the group having used their own human and cultural capitals.
Originally, Nha San was more popular among the artistic and creative community than the general public. Some came because they knew Manh Duc or Phuong Linh, whole others came for the experimental pieces of art or possibly for mere curiousity. This unintentionally created a boundary surrounding Nha San, which separated its space and people from the wider public and authorities. Manh Duc once address this by informing the goverment administration and inviting them to join the exhibitions. Nha San Collectives in Zone 9 has come slightly closer to the audience via social media. Now, at Nha San Café, they aim for a significant change. The private house has become a public space. The art studio is now integrated into a coffee shop open to anyone who is craving a cup of Vietnamese coffee and a view of contemporary Vietnamese art.
As Lu, a young and stylish artist and also manager of Nha San Café said: “Most of the people who came to the cafe are young, and we hope that we can approach a wider audience here.”
Nostalgia & The Art
Over the last few years, nostagia and eco-friendliness have become popular concepts at new coffeeshops in both Hanoi and HCMC. Owners favour decorating their space with replica antiques and eco-friendly materials such as old cassettes, table fans, typewriters, stained interiors, and others. Nha San Café has a nostalgic and natural feel but is totally different from others. While new coffeeshops work hard to adopt such a style, at Nha San Café it comes naturally.
“When we open the coffee shop, we use all of the furniture that were always there, which belonged to Manh Duc,” said Phuong Linh “ So there was no need to buy any decorative items”. As some may known, Nha San’s owner is an antique collector and all the decorative items have been accumulated over many years. After 15 years as an art studio and occupied by all kinds of artists since 1994, the space has its own inimitable atmosphere. Khieu Anh, a 19-year-old Hanoian who is a frequent visitor to the café, spoke of its tranquility and greenery, which function as natural climate control during the summer. Its authentic nostalgia is one ò many things that makes Nha San Café stand out among other coffeeshops in town.
The place is a regular venue for talks, seminars and musical performances regarding art and culture. Since the late 1990s Nha San Studio has held educational workshops and talks, such as Asian Window (Art Network Asia), Open Academy (in partnership with Goethe Institute) and others with international artists. These activities used to be small-scale and private until the opening of the Nha San Collective in Zone 9 and subsequently, Nha San Café. Phuong Linh, the creative leader of the group, said their ambition is to hold more discussions and seminars for the general public.
While the reputation of the owners and available materials holds them in good stead, Nha San Café may have to work hard on broadening its audience, stimulating and encouraging the general public to engage in the artistic space, which hasn’t been the case in the past. For its nostalgic authenticity and cool people, though, Nha San Café is definitely a place worth checking out.