Spotlight on Pham Huy Thong : Sovereign Asian Art Prize Interview

A closer look at the finalists for The 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize

This interview with Sarah Choo Jing is part of a series of interviews highlighting the shortlisted artists for The 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize – the 18th edition of Asia’s most prestigious prize for contemporary artists. Selected from over 400 entries, the finalists hail from 16 countries and regions across Asia-Pacific. Of the artists, 27 are new to The Prize – appearing in the shortlist for the first time. Read on to discover more about the finalists, their key points of inspiration, and why it is important to champion the work of artists from Asia-Pacific.


Pham Huy Thong (Vietnam) was shortlisted for his work ‘Reincarnation Wheel 1’. The work takes inspiration from all our lives, whether we are rich or poor, as we fight every day to pursue happiness.


How did you first become interested in politics and current affairs?

The interest came to me naturally. It is like it was passed down to me genetically. Both of my parents are journalists, and, in addition, they both graduated in the same class studying literature at university. As a result, my parents’ classmates would often gather at our home. They felt a level of comfort being in a space where they knew both the husband and the wife. In those days the country was desperately poor so the “parties” often included simply a bottle of alcohol, some peanuts and some leftover bones (boiled for a whole day to extract their flavor) from a nearby noodle shop.

Despite the modest circumstances, the discussions at these parties could not have been more exalted. My parents’ friends had many different types of jobs. Some were also journalists while others were editors, novelists, poets or playwrights. Gathered around the bottle of alcohol, they read each other their latest writings, discussed the latest political developments, shared their thoughts and expressed their emotions in a way they did not dare to do anywhere else. I usually found myself seated on my father’s lap right in the middle of those discussions. I was attracted not by the politics or the poetry but by some piece of food that they shared with me. Gradually and unintendedly, however, all those topics that were being discussed were absorbed  into my mind.

For a short period after I finished my education, my painting was “aesthetically nice”. The topics were portraits or landscapes, but I very quickly became bored with this type of work. I recalled the parties in my parents’ house and the discussions they had had with their friends. One should never be the same. I think a painter should work like a writer. No matter how skillful you are at using words, if the contents are not rich and diverse, your career, in the end, is disposable. Thus, I started to depict my real interests in my paintings, firstly to satisfy myself. Dating from that time, political and social issues began to appear in my art as an undeniable desire.


What in particular drew you to the tragic story that inspired the artwork?

In October of 2019, there were 39 Vietnamese immigrants who lost their lives in a frozen lorry container. The whole world has read about this story so I think there is no need to go into the details. I understand this tragedy was just the tip of an iceberg. The stories of people from the third world illegally being smuggled into rich Western countries has been playing out every day for years. This secret human trafficking brings with it a hidden world of mistreatment, injustice, and terror, but hovering above it all was a refractive rainbow of hopes and dreams for a better life.

When depicting social commentary in my art, I focus on describing the phenomenon rather than on specific events. Events may pass quickly, but the underlying phenomenon that cause them will persist – if the society that generates them does not change – and thus will create more similar events in turn. The tragedy of the 39 victims was a typical case. In depicting this tragedy, however, I had to find a way to deliver the message of a bigger view, or the message of the intense dream of people pursuing happiness.


What feelings do you hope to evoke in audiences when looking at your work?

It would be a bit of a cliché if I said that I want audiences to gain hope when looking at my dark and stormy paintings. We all have our own wars in our souls. The poor fight the battles in the style of the poor and the rich fight their own battles in the style of the rich. The nature of human beings is always to look towards what is better. That instinct drives us into the outer world and in the meantime, delivers hope into your brain.


How important is it to support artists from Asia-Pacific?

Very important. The Asia–Pacific region, a place which is historically rich culturally, is now an irreplaceable part of the international business ecosystem. Providing support to artists in this region will help the art here to reach the position that it deserves.

People have previously said that the world of art was like a flat map with Europe in the center and regions like the Asia-Pacific and others placed on the edges. This analogy was once correct. But I like to imagine that now factors like the Internet, the efforts of regional artists, the development of the art market and the aid of art patrons like The Sovereign Art Foundation will be anchors that will shorten the distances and bend that once flat art map into a sphere that better reflects the modern world. And on this new art globe, nobody has to stay on the edge.

‘Spotlight on Pham Huy Thong’ courtesy of Sovereign Asian Art Prize, May 2022