Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vietnamese Kitsch: Lacquered Religious Pictures

When I first visited Vietnam in the mid 90s, lacquerware was just about the only handicraft item available. It was sold everywhere and lacquer factories were ubiquitous. These were Dickensian institutions, with small, thin boys, their hands and arms blackened with lacquer, toiling away in hot warehouses with sad faces. It was an old-fashioned, labour-intensive process.
Ten years later Vietnamese lacquerware became ubiquitous - not the traditional black stuff with inlaid gold and mother-of-pearl in traditional designs, but groovy rice bowls, trays and jewellery boxes. You could buy them anywhere, from Newtown to Nanjing. Indeed, even now when you go shopping for handicrafts in China a great many of the items available come from Vietnam.
Last time I was in Vietnam, however, lacquer seemed to be distinctly out of fashion. The brighly coloured, more modern items were still in evidence,but the traditional boxes and paintings had almost entirely disappeared.
What had cropped up instead were lacquered religious pictures, available very cheaply at temple and church gift shops. I bought this wonderful image of Di Lac Phat (Maitreya Buddha) at Phap Hoa Temple, and I used to hang it in my office. My friends at work called it "The Gay Buddha" - and I can kind of see what they meant.
I am a sucker for this kind of thing - I love religious imagery at the best of times - the more gaudy, the better.

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