Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vietnam - January 2014 - #4

The night is alluring.
I don't mean I'm attracted to the dark 'Nosferatu-style' or that I have the full collection of KISS greatest hits. Instead, I find that sketching night scenes is quite a challenge, given the little tools a sketcher can carry. Pencil, a couple pens, watercolors and limited time....
When I began sketching I did not know how to get it, since using watercolor everything tends to look as a sunny midday flowery scene in the park. But some time ago, Robert Muts told me his secret: Before applying watercolor, he paints the shadows with an ink wash, leaving only what will be in the highlights untouched. After that, all hues done in watercolor will be subdued. It has to be waterproof (Noodlers in my case) ink, otherwise it muddles when wet again.
Also, in real life colors in the dark desaturate to the point of total dark. And coloring a highly desaturated scene is a real challenge. So I try once and again.
This sketch was left unfinished half a year ago. I never found the time to finish it, but yesterday I sat and gave it the works.

Three fish sellers  
Three women selling fish in the incredibly busy Hoi An market. Moleskine, Noodler's ink, watercolor and Prismacolor
Bonsai Tree in the Temple of Literature, Hanoi
These trees always amazed me.  Some key principles in bonsai aesthetics include:
-Miniaturization: Trees are kept small enough to be container-grown while fostered to have a mature appearance.
-Proportion among elements: The most prized proportions mimic those of a full-grown tree as closely as possible.
-Asymmetry: Bonsai aesthetics discourage strict radial or bilateral symmetry in branch and root placement.
-No trace of the artist: The designer's touch must not be apparent to the viewer.
-Poignancy: Many of the formal rules of bonsai help the grower create a tree that expresses 'Wabi-sabi', a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
The Bonsai tradition dates back over a thousand years, a period that not only gives one something to reflect upon, but also equals the age of the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, where this tree lives.
It was built in 1070 then reconstructed several times. In 1076, Vietnam's first university was established within the temple to educate Vietnam's bureaucrats, nobles, royalty and other members of the elite. Over the centuries it lost relevance until in 1800 the Nguyen monarchs founded the Hue capital where they established a new imperial academy. (Moleskine 13x21)

Scooter girl
After going through rice paddies, street vendors, floating houses and women in cone hats, I wanted to draw something modern. Vietnam is not hovering on a sleepy -or bloody- past but facing the future. Not pretty, as today's Vietnamese cities are a beehive of cellphones and activity. But good for them for sure.
I found lately about 'frontier markets': Smaller and less accessible -but still "investable"- markets in countries of the developing world. Wikipedia lists 25: first in the list is Argentina, and last is Vietnam. It seems that after watching so many Vietnam War movies from the comfort of our upholstered cinema chairs, we are now on the same boat.
This makes me wonder -both- why we fell so fast or what these guys did to climb out of the hole. But, anyway, Kudos to that. These people deserve it, they are hard, earnest workers that instead of debating ideology from half a century ago are growing at breakneck speed.
So my choice was this: the modern vietnamese girl you see everywhere, having dropped the cone hat, they proudly ride their (own) scooters, dress western style, a cellphone their lifeline. Usually hidden behind those Surgical masks: funnily, I assumed they wore them to avoid sunburn (in the east clear skin is preferred) but they use at night time too, so who knows.  Of course, I took a picture and drew from it.
Floating houses
So I had no watercolors or the chance to use them, and I painted this with some Derwent I had with me. I'm not sure about the results...
Floating homes. In Vietnam there are many of these. You see them everytime you ride a boat. Big, massive clusters of floating mass. 
Oil barrels, wood planks, metal sheet, barking dogs, hanging wash, crazy faded colors and broken furniture splashing happily.
For who may have some romantic notion about living in something like this, a short train of thought including lack of electricity, water, sewers or gas for cooking/heating is a nice smack of reality. Poor guys, winter there must be hell...
Sketch Blooper # 1
I sketched this one in Saigon. There was the typical pileup of stuff I like so much. Happily I begun drawing, and when finally it was half drawn, I found the the shirts hanging in the middle floor are twice the size as the men top and bottom!.
I finished it anyway and had a great day, so finally I have a love-hate relation with this one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Vietnam - January 2014 - #3

A Hoi An alley in the dark.
Alleys do attract me quite. Maybe because on our regular Latin American cities -always under an iron square grid- there are no back alleys, only repeating standard size streets.
A side note: spanish colonial urbanists measured all in 'varas' (sticks). A 'vara' is 86,6 cm long: 3 feet. A yard, for anglo culture. Now, it seems that 'conquistadores' wanted it easy on math, as for those enlightened minds anything where you needed more than the fingers to count was rocket science. So every time they could get away with it, things measured 10. Thus: 10 varas (8,66 mt. or 10 yards to you non-metric-heretics)
That's why in every argentine city streets are 8,66 m wide -so you have no space to park or have a decent traffic flow- and most land plots are 10 yards in the front: architectural hell leading to narrow buildings full of twists and quirks, and the reason we have these slivered, hungered facades.
But, maybe I derailed just a tad... The point is, I love alleys, specially when they are dark, dirty, and in the back of restaurants, as this here in the waterfront at Hoi An. It reminds me of the 'spaghetti and meatballs' scene in 'Lady and the Tramp'. (13x21 Watercolor Moleskine).
Hoi An, a 'theme park' experience.
This must have been a beautiful city. It's recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. its Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. It was the largest harbour in Southeast Asia 2000 years ago and was known as Lâm Ấp Phố (Champa City), or city of the Cham, that controlled the strategic spice trade and with this won incredible wealth.
Homes in the ancient town still have wooden fronts, and you can imagine the characters of Marguerite Duras's L'Amant (The Lover) sweating in silent passion behind those closed wooden shutters, under a lazy ceiling fan.
One wonders what would Mme. Duras (or the Cham for that case, should they be looking from their Chinese heaven) think of the manner these wonderful houses and streets metamorphosed into souvenir stalls that'd belong right there in Main Street Fantasyland, Orlando.
This small drawing tries to show the houses as they were (top) and what happened at ground level just in a couple decades, thanks to mass tourism (bottom). 
Street Vendors
Vietnamese street vendors can be roughly divided into three types: those who constantly move around either by bike or on foot, those have a stable stand on a street and, lastly, those who own a shop and expand their products on the pavement. They serve as an informal yet extremely important agent in the local economy.
Those in the first type are all over. One can pick up a meal or snack from them as soon as one gets hungry.
You buy Banh Mi (Bread) or Pho (Soup) from these sellers, among a myriad of goods: water, vegetables, fruit... Usually they carry a crippling load -twice their own weight- in these wicker contraptions, a vietnamese tradition as old as the sea.
I admire how hard they work.  Many people do backbreaking work from 6 AM to midnight daily just to make a few 'Dong'. ($) 
And I specially admire women in Vietnam.  They seem to silently and with immutable elegance handle some of the most difficult jobs, work the longest hours, and are still expected to single-handedly take care of the kids and prepare the family meals. Kudos to the Vietnamese women.
A Saigon Angle
Lately, I'm quite into broken angles. And when it comes to that, any city block in any Asian city will give you more twists, rotations and skewed perspectives than you can bargain for.
This angle here is nothing special, and I have many sketches as this one. An unsung for alley in Saigon, yes. Some hanging wash and uncombed cables
But for my western/latin education, built solidly upon monumental neo-renaissance, main-axis, Vitruvius-kosher architecture, the East is like having your first hamburger after a lifetime of Vitel Tonné and arugula...
The manner people relate to their flag tells volumes about their sense of nation. In some countries...well yes, there is a flag. A well loved symbol appearing here and there, mostly in public buildings, flying a lonely color blur. Argentina is like that: here and there you see a flag hanging from a window on our national holiday. Of course, when the national football (soccer) team plays elsewhere, things are quite different...
Yet in others, flags are everywhere, pinpointing the city as an everyday staple. France, India and the USA being very notable examples.
But nowhere I've seen as many national flags as in Vietnam. That red and yellow patch is everywhere. Maybe it was because I visited on the Chinese New Year?
You walk an alley and find flag after small flag, hanging from the humblest window. The irony of it sharing colors with the -also ever present and many times quite near- Mc Donalds banners seems lost to many.
I tried my hand twice at these flags, but I'm not happy with either. When all the rest is colorless, controlling the reds in these was quite a challenge. (Moleskine 13x21)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vietnam - January 2014 - #2

I had been sitting in that restaurant some time already, and these two bikes were at the side. Not always one has something nice to draw at hand, but these two were worth it.
Bicycles in Vietnam.... When I visited the first time in 2001, everyone had one, and families struggled to buy a motorcycle. There were motor bikes in the street, yes, but half of all two wheelers were bicycles.
Today... lets say that 13 years ago I panicked riding MY bike in Bangkok, and felt relieved when I arrived in the -relative- quiet of Saigon. Now, there is no difference. Riding a bicycle in today's 'Vietnamese beehive cities' (Hanoi and Saigon) is as safe as BASE jumping.
But... there are still some street vendors immutably -and solemnly- moving back and forth some goods. Brooms, flowers, kitchen pans, and a lot of other stuff imposible to sell from a motorcycle. For them, bicycles are more a moving stall than a vehicle, and most times they WALK the bicycle, rather than ride it.
This chair was there, being fixed at a carpentry shop in Hoi An.
Not only it was an interesting art subject by itself. It also forced me into evaluating the western attitude of replacing perfectly good stuff with new, more fashionable but similar items, against this approach, where things are fixed over and over through generations no matter the effort.
The Red River flows from Yunnan in southwest China through northern Vietnam. It divides Hanoi in half and the historical cantilever Long Biên Bridge connects both halves.
The bridge was heavily (and unsuccessfully) bombarded during the war. Under it and along the river, poor families coming from many rural areas of Vietnam live in boats under canvas and plywood huts.
One of the facts that amazes me the most in Vietnam is the fashion houses are open to the street. In the west, the line between public and private is quite defined. A fence in USA and Europe, and a heavily closed metal door (often with an armed security guy behind) in South America.
In Southeast Asia instead the street is an extension of the house.
Doors? What?
I've seen a 5-table family gathering - maybe a wedding?-  catered for on the alley in front of the houses, with all the neighborhood joining in, apparently. The street is not something 'outside' your house. It's instead part of your home. There you eat, play (maybe pray too), and quite possibly also -though I did not witness it- love.
And inside the houses -as you can inspect them freely from the street- always the same mix: a fridge, a plasma TV, a temple and the motorcycle. Sometimes, a table, but people watch TV and eat sitting on the floor, so tables are not really needed.
Most southamerican cities were built over a grid, brought by spaniards and directly inherited from the Roman Legions. In every argentine city- as in many other countries- the grid is tyrannical, and centers in a square where -unavoidably- there is a statue of the national hero or founding father near the cathedral and a town hall.
For my eyes, these oriental cities, where streets are narrow and winding, house fronts so close to one enother you can jump to the front neighbor's balcony, and building itself a mass of haphazard materials seemingly sewn together by a nightmare of cables, is as strange and alluring as the moons of Jupiter.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Vietnam - January 2014 - #1

In Vietnam -as in all the East- life is on the street. Steve McCurry, globally known photographer author of a famous portrait of a green eyed afghan girl, put it beautifully: 'In the secular West, where nothing is sacred, everything seems hidden; yet in Asia, where nothing is hidden, everything is sacred'.
I spent hours photographing from the street the interior of homes and people smiled and seemed happy about it.  Vietnamese folks eat, chat, get a haircut or place some tables on the street to have friends for dinner. And it works wonderfully.
I was specially shocked by the usual lack of chairs, tables or couches. It's because life is not only in the street, it's also on the floor. Since life is done sitting or lying on the floor, furniture makes no sense. Ah, we carry so much overhead here on the west...
Scooters are to Vietnam what horses were to the Far West. People do anything and everything with them.
The first time I went there was 13 years ago. The street was half bicycles and half scooters. Now, only old people use bicycles, and scooters are hot. It makes sense: Vietnam cities are not that big, and in many narrow streets cars are too big. Also, a family can buy a scooter for 1/5 of the price of a car. And they don't need a garage, since in most homes the ground floor -average 3x3 mt.- has to make room for a freezer, a TV, a motorcycle, a small temple and a family dining on the floor. In that order.
One good thing about bikes: you can 'custom fit' them far more than a car. Of course there are many standard scooters carrying from one inexpressive passenger (maybe with a dog sitting behind) to a family of four (really!). But many are customized to a special need.
I've seen scooters carrying 3 live pigs in their bamboo cylindrical capsules, 6 m long aluminum racks (horizontally), a door (vertically), 2m. high tangerine trees, many -many- 'bulky' bulks, half a shop stock and a heavy roll top desk.
This here, customized for a carpenter, carried quite more than a desk. I bet it was a whole week production being delivered.
If you stroll on a Vietnamese town, quite fast you'll be offered a ride in a cyclo, as cycle rickshaws are known in Vietnam. cyclo raiders are thin as wire and stroll endlessly back and forth. Anyone of them could win the Tour de France easily given the chance. 
Cycle rickshaws are found in all the east, with variations:  In India and China (and Cuba!), the passenger seat is located behind the driver, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam the driver sits behind the passenger seat.
They make sense, since cyclos are quicker than other forms of transport if traffic congestion is high. Also cycle rickshaw driving provides essential employment for recent immigrants from rural areas, generally impoverished men
In many cities, most drivers do not own their own cycle rickshaws; instead, they rent them from their owners, some of whom own many. My first time in Vietnam 13 ears ago, cyclos were all different. Now, they are homogeneous, a clare sign that they belong to a company. Up to this point: I saw a row of - say- 30 identical cyclos in a row, each one carrying a japanese tourist, camera in hand. And each head with an identical conical paddy straw hat, obviously recently bought 'en masse'.
All over the East people eat on the street. I've seen this in India, Thailand and Vietnam, and for all I know, it's the same in the rest of Southeast Asia. Of course now you have also McDonalds, but there, the 'golden arches' have two funny overtones. First, people visit them as a weekend retreat, not as a quick lunch solution. Families go there sundays to spend the day. And -in Vietnam- McDonalds signs are done in the same yellow and red hue of the 'hammer and sickle' communist banners hanging all over by the sidewalk meters away. Ironies of life.
But when it comes to real food, you go to these street stalls. They are all over the cities, catered by a family, and people sit on the sidewalks in those omnipresent red and blue low stools, and enjoy these 'home meals'. I was always aiming at omelet and 'Bánh mì' (Small baguettes) as I did not understand what was into most food. But you have any kind of food done by the street vendors, and modern life does not seem to be changing this custom.
For whom likes cluttered stuff - as me- Vietnam is heaven. Just sitting in front of one of these ubiquitous food stalls where everything is in the open is a ball.
Pans, skillets, stools, pieces of wood, broken tables, chopsticks, unknown fruit, plastic bottles, 'ad hoc' canopies, fly swatters, light fixtures, soot, big water cans and people (+ kids) busily juggling it all at ease.

A Banyan is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte (a plant growing on another plant) when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree. These small seeds are dispersed by birds and many land on branches and stems of trees. When they germinate they send roots down towards the ground, and may envelop part of the host tree, giving banyans the casual name of "strangler fig", as often it applies heavy pressure and kills the tree. Such an 'enveloped' dead tree eventually rots away so that the Da (banyan) becomes a "columnar tree" with a hollow central core. In jungles such hollows are particularly desirable shelters.
Banyans are often symbol of a village or a temple. In Vietnam many temples and pagodas have one of these trees near the entrance. The 'Da' tree stands for strong and admired historical figures. It's also considered witness the changing of people, the heavens and the whole life cycle. Children play in their roots and teens start dating there.
Da trees are a symbol of longevity, strength and wisdom all over Asia and many writers use them. In Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' the roots of an enormous banyan tree cover an area "half a mile in diameter" and in Brian W Aldiss's 'Hothause' a single huge banyan covers half of the globe.