In the living room of potterer Doan Xuan Hung’s house in HCMC’s Tan Phu district are creations of different types and sizes, while in the front yard is a gas stove that serves as a kiln. A Vietnamese dragon statue of the Ly Dynasty, a linga the size of an adult’s fist, a Jesus statue about 60 cm high and countless of other objects fit into any empty space.
Among his works of art is a special statue called ‘Fulcrum of Love’, which he has just created and is very pleased with. He skilfully chose the xanh dong tro (sea green) colour for the work’s enamel. This colour is what brought fame to the pottery items of Bien Hoa town in southern Dong Nai province. The art work is a large hand with fingers spread firmly lifting two lovers.
‘It’s easy to produce baked clay products, but evolving a style of his or her own is of great significance to an artist.’ Hung said.
Love of Lu Cam pottery
Hung was born in Lu Cam village in Ngoc Hiep commune in Nha Trang and has a strong love of the traditional pottery started by his ancestors.
Lu Cam pottery village came into existence in the early 19th century. In honour of the village’s pottery, the Lu Cam Communal Temple had honourable titles conferred upon it by three Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. Emperor Thanh Thai conferred an honourable title upon the temple in 1903 and Emperor Duy Tan did likewise in 1909, as did Emperor Khai Dinh in 1924. The three titles are still kept at the communal temple.
In the past, Lu Cam pottery products were mostly household items such as tiles, bricks, pots and jars. It products were found all over the south-central area of Vietnam, in Phu Yen, Khanh Hoa, Binh Dinh and Binh Thuan provinces. In the 1960s war made it difficult for construction and also for making pottery. Plastic products like pots, jars and other household items appeared and gradually replaced pottery products. Now, only two or three families in Lu Cam pottery village are still in involved in the craft.
Hung has tried different means and has found a good way to promote the development of Lu Cam pottery, because he thinks it is purely Vietnamese and not influenced by other types of pottery as the craft has been in the village for five generations. At first, Hung wondered why pottery products in other places like Bau Truc looked nice while their durability and technical properties may not be at the high level of Lu Cam pottery. And he wondered why Lu Cam pottery could only be household items. He mulled it over, and went around the country building statues in many places. In 1997 he focused on only making pottery products, working hard and trying to identify the properties of clay in order to create artistic pottery products.
In 2003 he introduced Lu Cam artistic pottery to the public for the first time and they were highly regarded by experts. His products were statues reflecting the daily activities and festivals and also indicated the love between mothers and their children in the Vietnamese and Cham style. Over the past few years he has made statues about things contained in the Bible in the simple Vietnamese style and they were also highly praised. He has recently had his works displayed at exhibitions held by himself or co-organised with others and has won an award almost every year.
A different way
‘Everyone faces problems while searching for a way to create works of art. With clay, knowing its different properties really counts,’ Hung believes. In his work he tried to find a way to create art works and his own method of kilning pottery products. His works really are special. He is meticulous throughout the whole process, from designing and developing to baking. He can create art works whether he is in Nha Trang or HCMC because he builds a factory and a kiln right in his house.
When asked what is necessary for making such statues, he said, ‘I only need clay, ideas, and then designs on the clay before it is dried and baked. To make designs on clay is extremely difficult because there are no moulds. Only very experienced artists can make lively statues. Artists must know the properties of the clay and at what temperature a product should be baked at, so they will not break. There are three ways of baking. To make pottery, for example, clay is fired at between 600°C and 900°C, while clay fired at between 1,000°C and 1,050°C becomes earthenware, and clay baked at 1,250°C becomes stoneware.’
In addition to its beauty, each of Hung’s art works or souvenirs present a message of human culture and civilisation. For instance, the statues of the Vietnamese Dragon, linga, yoni, Cham dance and so on are of significant Vietnamese features but it is easy to recognise Hung’s specific designs.
Doan Xuan Hung’s works can be admired at his house at 36/24 Le Dinh Tham St., Tay Quy Ward, Tan Phu District, HCMC, or at his workshop in Nha Trang, in Vinh Ngoc Commune, or at the Lu Cam Pottery Stall at Po Nagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang.
He always focuses on three details. First, he includes special regional cultural features in his art works. Second, his products include indications of the era (the 21st century). And third, they reflect his designs. Having been born in south-central Vietnam, he is influenced by the Sa Huynh culture and the Cham culture, and he has often created art works in the sense of realism usually found in the Cham culture.
‘God gives us the ability to make beautiful things for ourselves,’ he said, ‘so we should be willing to make a contribution by making works of art for display in public places.’
He has just returned from a long trip with his associates to Thanh Ha pottery village in Hoi An town, Quang Nam province, and is cherishing a project making pottery statues for a legendary garden in Nha Trang. He has always been interested in ideas about things regarding children, bibles, mothers, motherly love, and love of life. He himself has become mature thanks to legendary tales, especially Vietnamese tales like the one about betel leaves and areca nut trees and the one about a bundle of chopsticks.
Now he has hundreds of draft pottery designs. He is afraid he won’t have enough time to get them all done because they all require a long time to finish and need public support.