Nguyễn Duy Anh, aka Chú Môi is a freelance artist in Saigon. The moniker, which means “Uncle Lips” in Vietnamese, resulted from his being teased as a kid for his full lips, then choosing to incorporate that experience into his brand. If you are a local art enthusiast, you might have come across Chú Môi’s work on social media
Portrait of Chú Môi
Can you share a little bit about your art style?
The two main styles that influence me are Cubism and Neo-Expressionism. In Cubism, a very well-known artist for this movement is Picasso, and one for Neo-expressionism is Basquiat. I started to become familiar with these art styles around March-April 2019. Before that, I was an artist but most of my work was illustration and graphic design. I shifted more into fine arts, especially painting, around 2019, switching from digital illustration to hand-painted canvases.
Of the many art styles and movements, why did you choose Cubism and Neo-Expressionism?
First of all, it was probably because I wanted to make something unique. If I had chosen to do portraits or Realism, it would be too common. I wanted to have something of my own, so that when people look at my art they will know “oh, this is a Chú Môi”.
Second, learning and experimenting with such abstract styles has given me new experiences and freedom from my usual energy and emotions. When I discovered Picasso’s Cubism, it was during a personal dark time, but painting my first Cubist work helped to free me from my feelings and gave me purpose in the form of pursuing this style. I was influenced a lot by Picasso, but after a process of constant practice I found my own identity and flow when painting until a friend of mine finally said “this has Chú Môi’s DNA in it.”
“Hủ Tiếu Gõ” (Noodle Cart)
What are the 3 words you would choose to describe your personal feelings about the two art styles?
Mischievous, crazy, and satisfying.
When I start a painting, I don’t think of it as making an artwork. Instead, I think that I am playing with colors and brushes. The idea that it’s play lets me use the brush and colors in my own way. Then when I’m able to express all my ideas, it’s very satisfying.
Is coming to arts a way to please our own feelings, instead of serving the mass audience or for commercial purposes?
Yes. We make art to serve our egos or for a deep sense of purpose. This is what differentiates an artist and a graphic designer. When I was studying graphic design, I often found people arguing about the difference. I feel that one is for commercial use, to please clients, while the other is to satisfy ourselves.
When I began making art, I had two main strains of thought. The first is to satisfy my ego, my need to express myself. The second is to serve the artistic sensibility of my audience. I want people to look at my art, understand the messages behind it, and be surprised by it. It’s always a balance between those two things.
Creative people are often asked how they come up with ideas and bring them to life. Some people believe that creativity can follow from constant practice and discipline, as with your Môi’s Outer Space project where you made an artwork a day. Others worship unexpected inspiration and going with the flow. Which side are you on?
I lean towards the second side. Although I do set goals for myself every day, they mostly just involve being creative by doing something new, not necessarily creating new artwork. To me, creativity also comes from maintaining our consciousness.
If I go a day without painting, I have to go somewhere to look around or do something to trigger my creativity. I don’t like sitting still. Every day I make myself think about the things around me, and from there I cultivate ideas. On good days I come up with two or three ideas, note them down, and start working on them gradually.
In the Môi’s Outer Space collection, which artwork is your favorite?
That collection has reached 50 pieces now, and honestly, I like all of the artworks in it. Each piece has a theme and message of its own. But the ones that come to mind are “Mona Lisa in Saigon”, “Noodle Cart”, and “Popiah”
The Mona Lisa is the one that really made my name. A lot of people are curious about the ideas and elements of it. I feel like everyone is looking for a deeper meaning to the artwork. To be honest, I made it after I had a dream of going to Bến Thành market and finding Mona Lisa there eating noodles. It was that absurd. I woke up, searched for stock images, and made the collage. And boom, it went viral.
“Mona Lisa in Saigon”
One of the reasons the public is so interested in Môi’s Outer Space is because of the local Vietnamese elements used in the artwork. Each country has its distinctive designs, such as Japan’s Great Wave and China’s Fu Lu Shou patterns. What do you think can represent Vietnam?
I think it would be everything that belongs to the streets of Vietnam, which have a rawness about them. For instance, the noodle carts signs saying “Cấm đổ rác” (No garbage dump) or some other prohibition of bad social behavior, or the street hawkers. It should be the simplest and most familiar things on the streets where people spend much of their lives.
Which artwork gave you the strongest feelings while making it?
That was was the “Fight Club” painting I made last year. At that time, I was going through a kind of ideological struggle with myself. There were many personas, many voices arguing inside my head. I can’t recall what ‘they’ were arguing about in particular, I just know that it was also the time when I watched the movie “Fight Club”. So my feelings about the movie and my chaotic mental state culminated in this painting.
Chú Môi and “Fight Club”
Besides reflections on life and social issues, what else does your art have to offer?
I like to take inspiration from the things that most people see every day but wouldn’t think of as a source of inspiration, like street vendors. Our language also has a lot of interesting words and wordplay, and I often think of ways to play with words and create visuals from them.
I love everything related to Vietnam – if it’s not in images, it must be in literature. I have an album about Vietnamese literature between the old and the new. For example, literature combined with hip-hop and fashion.
Literature textbook compilation – Edited by Chú Môi
Another is about Đông Hồ art, in which I ‘remix’ the historical and modern elements, but still, keep the core values of Đông Hồ.Tranh Đông Hồ Crossover
Does dealing with negativity affect your energy or the positive message of the artwork?
To me, it doesn’t. When I’ve made the artwork, the energy and the sentiment I put into it have been released. Each work has a feeling and an experience of its own to me, and even sadness or negativity can help me get through difficult times by putting those emotions into the work. Other people have their own ways of releasing anger or negative thoughts. For me, painting makes me feel at ease.
For modern artists, digital channels are a place where everyone can share their creative content and access new sources of information. As someone whose work first gained attention online, what do you feel are the benefits and risks of technology for freelance artists?
I’ll start with the positive side. Technology was born to support humans. For artists specifically, technology helps bring their voices to more people. Before digital platforms, the main ways to see an artist’s work were through newspaper and television, which made it harder to appreciate.
The downside is how it affects the artist’s intellectual property. When an artist’s work is shared a lot online, it can easily be stolen or re-uploaded without permission.
After art is shared, it can take on a life of its own. What do you do if the audience misunderstands your work?
In general, I try not to impose a meaning on the work and accept others’ interpretations. However, sometimes people misinterpret my work in a negative way as saying something I don’t intend, and then I have to speak up. Still, rather than say “You’re wrong, my artwork is about this,” I’ll say something like “If you pay more attention to what I have painted, there is a message within it. According to your perspective, my painting no longer delivers such meaning, so please take another look at it!”
For instance, this one is called “Em gửi anh ít tiền cafe, có gì anh giúp đỡ em với nha” (I’m giving you some money for coffee, please help me when I’m in need). I painted it in reference to the injustice in which people offer money under the table to those with power in exchange for extra benefits. At that moment I imagined myself in the shoes of a hard-working and responsible employee whose efforts couldn’t compete with those who are willing to pay bribes.
What is your take on the current state of the creative landscape in Vietnam?
I think that the art and creative landscape in Vietnam is on the way to thriving, and the average age is getting younger. There are more and more young talents with unique styles. Regardless of their age, these artists are achieving the success they deserve. I see new artists being recognized every day and the community in Vietnam is very supportive.
From your experience as a graphic designer and now a freelance artist, what do you appreciate about each?
As a graphic designer, I appreciated the financial stability, while as a freelance artist I appreciate the freedom to be creative.
When I first graduated, I was kind of selective when applying for jobs because I wanted to find a company that suited me. After four months of struggling, I ended up in an agency, where I worked on a lot of Japanese beer products. The requirements in terms of visual representation were mostly safe, using the same visual throughout the whole campaign without any significant changes. If I was more creative, I would receive feedback saying I had gone too far. I felt uneasy because at that time I was bursting with ideas.
Again and again, I felt restrained and cramped, like I was being drained of my creativity, my skill set, and my awareness. Eventually, I couldn’t think of anything new to create and my skill set became stagnant. Roughly five months after, I quit and became a freelancer.
In between the collaborations, the encouragements, and “shout outs” among the artist community, what are the opportunities for new artists?
I think the fact that underground artists share, collaborate, and support each other constantly will help bring them to a larger market. Still, I think it’s good to work for some artists to work for a company to sharpen their skills by working with clients. Perhaps they can find a way to manage both their day jobs and personal projects better than I could.
For those who are still in university or have just graduated and want to be in the creative industry, I only have one thing to share: just try your best and explore your full potential, and whatever will come, will come. Being an artist means being open to possibilities and new experiences.
How do you feel about “artistic playgrounds” and the potential for creative communities in Vietnam?
I’ve joined several of these playgrounds before but found that they’re mostly made up of people who knew each other already and tend to have an insular mentality. I think that is a drawback, because the creative landscape would be more diverse and interesting if we expand these circles to include a mixture of different artistic identities.
It would be nice if Saigon had more exhibitions, which are still lacking for emerging artists. I have always thought of exhibitions as a form of “art house”, which connects different forms of media like music, poetry, and painting. I had plans to do something like that this year, with poetry, literature, and music in collaboration with a rapper and three other painters. It started as a mini showcase, but the more we indulged in it, the bigger and more diverse we wanted it to become. When our plans had finally come together and were ready to run in July this year, we had problems with the venue and the Covid-19 outbreak that led us to postpone it.
I’ve also had some invitations to hold a personal exhibition. If one clicks, I will do it.
What would you say to yourself in 10 years?
“Pick up your pen and draw.” With a pen in my hand, I can do many things. I can also write all of my ideas out. As for the 10-year mark, I don’t really have a resolution. I like to keep things unexpected and go with the flow! 😀
Artworks by Chú Môi
We look forward to more unexpected and extraordinary artwork on Chú Môi’s Fanpage and at his personal exhibitions! Thank you Duy Anh.
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