Culture Vulture

Having lived in Viet Nam for more than 10 years, Ando Seako is enchanted by Vietnamese lacquer art and has devoted her career to creating work in this medium.

Recently, the 39-year-old donated her biggest artwork to the Viet Nam Museum of Fine Arts as a way to express her gratitude to Vietnamese artists who have contributed to her career. In 1998, she held her first solo exhibition in Ha Noi. Other exhibitions followed in HCM City, Kobe, Kyoto and Nagoya. In March 2000, she was the first foreigner to become a member of Ha Noi Fine Arts Association.

She talks with Culture Vulture about her love for Viet Nam and lacquer art.

Why did you decide to come to Viet Nam and learn traditional lacquer techniques?

I came to Viet Nam as a tourist in 1995. At first, I didn’t have a very positive feeling about the country but during a trip I became very ill and people turned out to be very kind and offered to help me, even though I was a complete stranger. After that, I decided to spend more time in Viet Nam to understand the people and their culture. I rented a flat in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter and that was when I discovered Vietnamese lacquer arts and crafts.

I came from a country with a long history of lacquer craftsmanship and the products did not look very interesting. I thought it was such a pity that lacquer was being used to make mass produced souvenirs. Unlike lacquer products now, there were no products which suited modern tastes and that inspired me to learn lacquer techniques. During my visits to many workshops, I came across Trinh Tuan’s painting studio. I fell in love with his work and asked if I could study with him.

What difficulties did you face when you first started learning?

Learning the craft was difficult because I didn’t speak much Vietnamese and I had to squat down all the time to paint and sand. This was physically demanding. I was at Tuan’s studio seven days a week. Looking back, none of these problems really bothered me. I was too fascinated by the new things I was discovering about lacquer painting and life in general.

 How did you manage to learn all the processes involved with creating Vietnamese lacquer paintings?

I was very lucky to meet master Bui Tuan Thanh and master Doan Chi Trung. They are not the most famous lacquer artists you will find in Viet Nam if you go and ask at galleries and art schools. But they are two of its most skilled lacquer artists. Even though I was a foreigner, they were very open and taught me their time-honoured lacquer techniques as well modern methods.

To work with lacquer, you need not o­nly a strong artistic sense, but also a rational way of thinking. Lacquer artists use so many different materials of different sizes and forms and lacquer is a living material which is always influenced by temperature and humidity. You need experience and skill to have a control over all of these elements.


In 2004, you opened classes to teach local people and many overseas visitors from the US, Japan and France about Vietnamese traditional lacquer art. Why did you open these classes and what were your expectations of the students?

At my exhibitions, I would always display tools and materials alongside text explaining the basic history and techniques of lacquer. Vietnamese lacquer art involves such a fascinating process and I wanted to share that with others.

After visiting my exhibitions, people would ask if I could teach them lacquer techniques. It took a while, but in 2003 I realised that I should be as generous as the masters who had taught me and been so free with their knowledge.

 Why do you like Viet Nam so much? What has the country given you?

Vietnamese people often say that I must be rich because I am Japanese. But I always tell them that Vietnamese people have a richer life. They are rich in sentiments, rich in time for family and friends. Those are the things that we Japanese have lost in our quest for financial riches. A life full of sentiment is what I enjoy about Viet Nam. I hope that Vietnamese people will not lose this as the economy develops.