Bien Hoa Ceramics – Clay of thoughts

As the pottery-making tradition in Bien Hoa, Vietnam is so beautiful and unique, we’d love to bring you another insightful view from a local ceramist‘s perspective. His name is Dinh Cong Viet Khoi – a ceramics lover and professor. He has been making ceramics and teaching this skill to thousands of people, for almost 20 years. Here are his own thoughts, translated by Wild Tussah.

Read on to learn more about this local artisan’s story.

A little introduction of Bien Hoa Ceramics and why it captured my heart

The Bien Hoa ceramics line is a combination between Vietnamese, Chinese and Western-styled ceramics, especially  those of the Limoges school,  France. The folk features of local pottery were researched and developed by the French, and followed the academic aesthetic to create a unique pottery line; Bien Hoa Art Ceramics. Its designs reached a very high level of aesthetics and unsurpassable virtuosity in techniques. The ceramic home decor products and exterior ornaments of this line, which are seen in many different projects, have showcased the practical use of Bien Hoa ceramics since the 1920s.

I love Bien Hoa ceramics for that reason. It is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. Although Bien Hoa ceramics was influenced by foreign factors, it always kept its unmistakable characteristics.

Moreover, I was born in this land. Since I was a kid, I usually followed my dad to the factory and played with the clay, then assisted him when I grew up. I finally realized that pottery is my only passion, which also makes me different from others. This special ceramics line is fading into oblivion and I’m striving to keep it alive and develop it ever further.

(Examples of Bien Hoa ceramic exterior ornaments are: Ornaments at Ben thanh Market, Binh Truoc Conference House, Bien Hoa Colonial War Memorial, Hui Bon Hoa’s house (Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts), Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos Border Column 1936,etc)

Bien Hoa ceramics

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Bien Hoa ceramics

Ornament at the West gate of Ben Thanh Market, Saigon. Credit: Nguyen Minh Anh


Bien Hoa ceramics were favored by Europeans in the 1930s

Under the management of Mr and Mrs Balick, who graduated from the Paris Decorative School and Limoges Ceramics School, Bien Hoa ceramics had been renowned through international trade fairs since the 1930s. The high aesthetic value of Bien Hoa ceramics agreed with the Western tastes, especially when it came to the ‘Vert de Bien Hoa’ color.

At that time, Mr Robert Balick broke all defective products as soon as they came out of the kilns. To keep the Bien Hoa ceramics style top quality, he only kept the best.

Bien Hoa ceramics

Bien Hoa ceramic statue at Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos border in 1936. Credit: Nguyen Minh Anh

Bien Hoa Ceramics are losing its popularity

After the Balick family, no one could capture the European market as well. There was little creativity, artisans would only use old designs, too much of it were Chinese motifs, the manufacturing process was not managed well, etc. Thus, the Bien Hoa ceramics started to lose its high standards in quality and its popularity started to plummet.

Bien Hoa ceramics

Binh Truoc Conference House in Bien Hoa, Dong Nai was built by French people and decorated with traditional ceramics. Credit: Nguyen Minh Anh

Best ways to preserve this tradition

  1. Recreate famous designs from the 1920s using the same traditional techniques.
  2. Design practical pottery to meet the consumers’ needs. At the same time, create more fine art pottery as a great way to promote this style of pottery.
  3. Research more clay and glaze colors. It’s difficult, but it’s the basis for creativity and development.
Bien Hoa ceramics

Ceramic dragon motif on the foutain at Song Pho sSquare. Credit: Nguyen Minh Anh

 

How I see Vietnamese ceramics in the future

I always believe Vietnamese ceramics can be proudly compared to any other products in the world in terms of speciality, but the profit gap is too great to encourage any sort of competition.

Vietnamese ceramics are typical of their particular regions of origin, due to the fact that each area has its own unique clay. This distinction creates a very interesting and diverse pottery background. However, there is a great lack of creativity and too much repetition of what the artisans’ ancestors have always done, that customers end up getting tired of the same old designs, so we really need to come up with many more new ideas for products.

Since the 1990s, various pottery companies have only been focused on making custom orders on behalf of foreign corporations. Nowadays, pottery manufacturers don’t really care to look for old artisans and young pottery designers. The experienced ceramists are losing their footing, the new ones don’t have a proper place to develop their art, and the tradition cannot get passed down to the younger generations. Other enthusiastic young ceramists can only strive to make their own small scale businesses, which cannot realistically supply the market. That’s a real waste of talent. If we can find investors, I strongly believe Vietnamese ceramics will flourish again.

Bien Hoa ceramics

Another example of Bien Hoa ceramics: Colonial War Memorial in Bien Boa, Dong Nai. Credit: Nguyen Minh Anh

If you have any questions about Bien Hoa ceramics or Vietnamese ceramics in general, feel free to leave a comment in the box below. We’d love to hear from you! And a big thank you to Mr Khoi for his thoughts on ceramic traditions in Vietnam

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