SAEKO'S ART WORKS
A Japanese Artist based in Vietnam since 1995.
Saeko studied Som Mai lacquer painting under the tutelage of artist Trinh Tuan, lacquer master Doan Chi Trung and lacquer craftsman Lam Huu Chinh.
She has persevered in the use of natural lacquer, which has become distinctly rarer in recent times in the face of competition from artificial lacquer, ensuring the maintenance of this ancient craft in the modern era by integrating tradition with innovation.
photograph by Hitoshi Hayashi
WHAT IS 'SON MAI'?
The Art of Lacquer is called “Son Mai” in Vietnamese language. “Son” means “Lacquer” and “ Mai” means “Sanding” respectively.
In Japanese Art of lacquer, sanding process plays inevitable part to make the lacquered surface fine and smooth. However, in Vietnam, lacquer artists use sanding process not only to acquire smooth surface but to create very dramatic effects on their art works.
Vietnamese artists apply complex layers of lacquer with different colour and texture, using variety of materials such as gold, silver, egg shell, river shell…
Then it is sanded flat to bring the underlining layers back to the surface just as stratums of earth.
The secret of this amazing technique lies in the nature of Vietnamese natural lacquer itself.
VIETNAMESE NATURAL LACQUER
Vietnamese Natural Lacquer is produced mostly in mountains of Phu Tho province, which located North West from Hanoi. The climate which never goes down 12 degree C even in winter, and the red soil in this region are said to be the ideal condition for Lacquer plantation. The element of Vietnamese lacquer which gives itself a beautiful glow, durability and cohesiveness is called Laccol, while respective element in Japanese lacquer is called Urushiol. The lacquer trees in these two countries are two different spices. Japan imports Vietnamese raw lacquer in small scale but it is considered as low quality lacquer which gives poor glow and dries too slowly. However, these problems only arise to Japanese craftsmen who work under less humid atmosphere. To be precise, lacquer does not dry but it hardens by chemical reaction with moisture in the air. Therefore, significantly humid climate in Northern Vietnam is ideal for Vietnamese lacquer. If craftsmen use Japanese lacquer in Vietnam, it will dry too fast for them to work with.
The inferiority of glow derives from the fact that Vietnamese lacquer contains less magic element described above and it contains more gum. As a matter of fact, this is also a great advantage for Lacquer Painting technique. The gummy substance helps lacquer to stay soft enough for artists to sand complex layers smoothly. The enzyme within lacquer continues to cause chemical reaction with the help of gummy substance even after artists finished their work. Therefore, clarity, glow and hardness of painting enhances as time passes.
As you can see, Vietnamese Natural lacquer is mysterious material which breathes just like us and it ages just like quality wine.
Today, less and less people know craftsmanship of Son Mai.
It is because Son Mai using Natural lacquer requires skill and experience as well as time. We could say more than 90 % of lacquer ware and lacquer art works produced in Vietnam are finished with artificial lacquer. The time honored art form is now being threatened by economical mass production.
Tradition does not have to be preserved just because it is tradition. However, there are traditions that have been passed on over generations because there are ultimate facts hidden within. Although my Son Mai art adopts personal thoughts and techniques which are totally my invention, they are still supported by logic of Vietnam's traditional craftsmanship.
I hope that my art works will help people realize the potential of Vietnamese Son Mai.