Artist Nguyen Van Minh’s bright, eye-catching paintings are well known among the people who live in his neighbourhood. For the past two years he has been gradually filling the alleyways at 62 Nguyen Khoai, Q4, with colourful artworks on the walls of people’s houses and walkways.
“I began this project for the pleasure of making the area beautiful,” he says. “Structurally, the houses around where I live are quaint and lovely, but I noticed that many of their walls were dirty, quite bland and quite old.”
Struck by this disparity, Minh began an ongoing project of decoration that would eventually stretch throughout the network of alleyways around his home.
His first painting was on the wall behind a coffee shop. “I explained to the coffee seller what I wanted to do and asked her if I could paint it,” he says. “She said yes, go ahead, and when I had finished everyone thought it was beautiful, so I did more. Some people even invited me to their houses to decorate their own walls.”
Initially, he was nervous to paint in such a public place.
“My whole family are creative people just like me, so they supported the idea,” says the 75-year-old. “But I am older now and my hands keep shaking so I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to paint well.” Minh suffered a brain injury 10 years ago, and his hand is not as firm as it once was.
Born in Dalat, Minh came to Ho Chi Minh City aged 18 to study at the Fine Arts School of Gia Dinh. “I studied art because I was gifted in it,” he says. “I have always had a passion for the arts in general — sports, dancing, music, etc. I love to sing and I also play the guitar.”
But his studies were put on hold during the war. He was conscripted to fight for the former government, and when the conflict finally ended in 1975 he found himself without employment and with little prospect of finding any.
“After the war, Vietnam was a poor place and there were few opportunities for people working in the arts,” he says. “Many people had to leave their profession and take up more menial work in order to survive.”
At this point, Minh became a cyclo driver, working in this trade for over a decade. His career path changed in 1990 when he got to know a monk who ran a centre for disabled children nearby.
“I started to get involved in the centre,” he says. “I shared my interest in the arts with the kids there, teaching them sports, drawing, singing and many other activities.”
About 10 years ago, Minh left the centre due to a brain injury.
“They told me that part of my brain had died,” he says. “I am still taking medication now, and although I don’t teach at the centre anymore, I am still involved in the arts with some local groups for singing, drawing, etc.”
Like many artists, Minh never plans what he is going to paint. He simply starts and sees where his mind takes him.
“Some of my paintings have meaning and others don’t,” he says. “It depends on how I feel, what is happening at the time, etc. One example is a big painting I did about a song called Spring Comes and Birds Fly Back, just like how the Vietnamese return home for Tet.”
He uses oil paints, applying them straight onto the wall. “If the wall is smooth I will just start painting,” he says, “but if it has cracks or is rough I will use plaster to make it smooth beforehand.”
Since he began painting the alleyways two years ago, Minh has paid for his own paints and brushes. It only takes him one or two hours to paint a small wall of around two metres square and under, but a larger one can take up to two days simply because he has to wait for the paint to dry.
Minh has painted up to 40 artworks on the walls of his neighbourhood, and still adds to it when he feels inspired.
“I paint when I can,” he says. “I’m not young like I used to be and I am busy with work, but when I have the energy and the free time I go out and add more art to the walls.”
Painted in warm, primary colours and often depicting flowers, springtime themes and folk song lyrics, his art continues to brighten the alleyways and lift the spirits of the people who live in them.
To see Minh’s work, head to the alleys off 62 Nguyen Khoai, Q4, HCMC
Photos by Zoe Osborne