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In Vietnam, Souls Captured on Paper

Once upon a time, hand-painted portraits were more valued in Vietnam than photographs. But with the arrival of digital cameras, the country’s remaining portrait painters have faded to black. In the old royal city of Hue only one remains: Master Huu Vinh T

A shrine in Vietnam (Alex Valavanis)
A shrine in Vietnam (Alex Valavanis)
Jochen Temsch

HUE -- What, that's not him? The tour guide is completely baffled. "I don't believe it!" he says in the accent-free German he learned as a student in East Berlin, back in the days of West and East Germany.

For years, the guide has been leading foreign visitors through Hue, the old royal city on the Perfume River in the central part of Vietnam. It's a city he knows like the back of his hand, which is why the guide is having such a hard time accepting that he's so stumped in this case.

He's been asking fellow locals for directions, but we always seem to end up in the same places that sell stuff for tourists – the usual kitsch, overly bright depictions of rice farmers with conical hats and water buffalo.

No. The artist we're looking for is Hue's last portrait painter.

At least, that's how they referred to him at the hotel, where the concierge said: "The best thing to do would be to try the Old Town." It was a matter of professional honor for the guide, who borrowed a motorbike and two helmets from a friend thinking this would help us locate the artist faster – but we still weren't making any headway.

This odyssey says a lot about the dying craft that was once so in demand and that fulfilled a particularly important function. Before the days when everybody could afford a camera, a sitting with the portrait painter was the only way to preserve one's features for the afterlife.

The cult of ancestors is common for Buddhists in Vietnam. Popular belief has it that when the departed have no place where they are remembered, they roam about and become bad spirits. So every family has a house altar on which portraits of relatives from past generations are placed. These can be photographs, but ideally they are drawings that don't fade with time.

And yet today, Hue residents don't even know where Master Huu Vinh Tran lives.

The time to smoke two, maybe three cigarettes

After an hour of crazy driving around through the rain and chaotic traffic, we finally find him. He's sitting on a wooden stool in a windowless garage. The floor is stained. The walls are painted lime green and are hung full of drawings: old women sitting straight-backed near floral displays, little boys with neatly parted hair, earnest-looking young women, soldiers with rifles, all depicted in black and white as realistically – at first glance at least – as photographs.

At our approach, Tran comes to the open door. He stares out at the sheets of rain coming down. He's smoking an unfiltered cigarette and he's not in a good mood. "No time," he says. "Too much to do."

Maybe Tran suddenly realizes how implausible that sounds, because for some reason, he grudgingly answers a few questions. Does he consider himself a craftsman or an artist? Tran shrugs his shoulders. "My paintings tell real stories," he says.

He's been painting for nearly 40 years. Tran is 55. His emaciated face makes him look a lot older, but his slender body is that of a boy. After studying at art college, he made a living drawing visitors at Hue Citadel before opening his own studio in this garage. "The 90s were the best times," he says.

That was when the economy was booming in Vietnam. But people didn't yet have digital cameras. Before that, only rich people could afford his portraits. In the 90s, however, people of more modest means were also coming to have themselves portrayed. Some would ask him to make a drawing from the faded photograph of a relative. Each job took about a day, and would earn him $30.

"The paint is expensive," he explains. He mixes it from black powder that comes from France. "It seeps into the paper and stays forever; it doesn't fade," Tran says.

But the real value of his portraits lies elsewhere. "When a person's portrait is created by an artist, their soul is captured on paper. Photographs can't do that," he says. Tran says he's painted old people, babies, the whole crew of a ship that was sunk by the Americans – and his wife, who died not long ago.

Tran decides he's done talking with us. But, in the time it took him to smoke two, maybe three, cigarettes, he has left a vivid portrait of himself in his visitor's memory.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Alex Valavanis

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