Joshua Jones discusses the importance of community art spaces from Vietnam to Cardiff, and reflects on the role of Cardiff-based community space Dyddiau Du in making connections.
During a light meal consisting of hot crusty bread, oil, olives, and cheese, in the early, humid evening and cicada song, I felt at home.
This was my last night in Việt Nam. For most of the trip I had slept terribly, struggled finding food that suited my diet requirements. Earlier that day I had been scammed by a Grab[i] driver, which had left me shaken up. Kai, who came to rescue me, is part of the 3năm studio collective who had fed and looked after me this evening.
3năm Studio is a bungalow in a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City[ii], occupied primarily by Dat Vu, a photographer, gardener, and self-described hermit, who lives in the house full-time. The rest of the group is made up of photographers, printmakers, curators, poets and zinemakers. Dat, Lien and Vanessa were there to welcome me when I arrived on the back of Kai’s motorbike. The house is secluded behind a stone wall off the main road: a wide, empty dirt track. It is made up of just five rooms, including a living room turned art studio and office. On a tour of their garden, Lien pressed a leaf from a eucalyptus plant she was growing into my hand for me to smell. Dat showed me the shallow pond in the shade behind the house, where, he said, the original owner once kept fish, until the pond completely dried one hot, barren summer.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how it must be to live under censorship, for it to be normalised.
I was in Việt Nam, not just to have a jolly, but as a delegation with Parthian Books and the British Council’s Wales office, within the UK / Việt Nam season, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of British Council’s presence in Việt Nam. I submitted an application in hopes of funding a creative writing project that would bring together LGBTQ+/queer writers in Wales and Việt Nam, which was successful. Then I found myself on a panel discussion on queer writing at the Goethe Institute in Hà Nội, and meeting creatives and collectives building their own spaces and communities. This involved plenty of stimulating conversations regarding the funding of arts in Việt Nam, navigating censorship, how community spaces are built – and sustained.
Sat on the floor of the porch, Lien and Kai were pulling out photography books, and zines (all kept in two unplugged fridges to keep away from insects and mites), while Dat searched the house for a collaborative project Lien & Kai had published together. Kai showed me a copy of the British Journal of Photography from 2017, in which featured work from Dat’s project spanning 2011-2017, Muted Conversations. An image of a fire takes up most of a double page spread.
It’s a thoughtfully layered image, with shadowy mountains far back, in front of which there’s trees, then rolling bush and a patchwork of green and yellow grass. In the foreground is the black, burning mound; behind it, partially obscured by the smoke, is a billboard of a political propaganda poster for the Communist party. The accompanying text says that a 2017 exhibition of Dat’s work was censored by the government. Kai said it was because of this photograph. When I asked Dat about it, he shrugged it off. ‘We closed the gallery, no one was arrested. It wasn’t a big deal’, he said.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how it must be to live under censorship, for it to be normalised. 3năm’s young people are attempting to provide opportunity to artists across Saigon and wider Việt Nam, to act as an oasis from the oppression of government, censorship and societal conservatism, because they’ve experienced it firsthand, and they’ve had enough. Running a space such as this is a political, defiant act. They are also keen to collaborate with other groups to host live events in their garden, across film, readings, and live music such as Saigon Community Radio. They have been busy building an international network of artists, collaborating with groups working across Asia such as RABA in Japan.
Most of the artists and writers that I met had a similar focus: to build global connections in a way that also defiantly diversifies Việt Nam ‘s artistic scenes. For example; My, of the Iconic House of Mizrahi[iii]and founder of the Việt Nam chapter of the Kiki House of Sun[iv]. My organised the first ever kiki ball[v] in Việt Nam, after voguing all over Asia. In the build-up to the ball[vi], she ran a series of ballroom workshops to educate and benefit anyone interested in taking part in this historical event. These are artists using what little they have to uplift their communities, expressing their art and queerness as everyday protest.
Surrounded by artists who have built a home and resource centre for their community, despite the risk of censorship and the lack of safety, made me feel melancholic for the past, despite my happiness being there. Growing up, I desperately needed community I simply didn’t have in my hometown. I only found it when I moved to Southampton from Llanelli for university; I joined a group called Campaign for Quiet, organising experimental music events across the city. I attended ‘DIY Fest’, an event of crafts and zinemakers, live music and poetry that ran a few times a year. I began organising house shows[vii] and poetry readings. I welcomed bands and artists from Canada, New York, Vienna, Athens, and all over the UK. My introduction to DIY mentality, politics and ethics began here, in my student years,through music and poetry. Even then I had interest in artistic connection, mutually beneficial international exchanges – and community.
I took these ideas with me, years later, when I moved to Cardiff (with a few stops in between) and set up Dyddiau Du, a community-focused library and artspace, where we host exhibitions and workshops, poetry evenings – to name a few. We host Trans Aid Cymru’s Cardiff socials for trans, nonbinary and intersex folk, and have worked with local groups such as Queerdos to organise queer-focused events. We are volunteers, working to build a social hub that is dedicated to the city’s queer and/or neurodivergent crowds.
The Capitol Centre, the building we inhabit, is also home to artists and organisers including Shift, Umbrella, and TactileBOSCH. In an article, Wales Online described The Capitol as ‘sad’, ‘empty’, and a place that ‘couldn’t get any worse’. Yet, the artist communities within the building are thriving. For example, Umbrella has fantastic links with the universities’ arts courses, and TactileBOSCH have been a staple of Cardiff’s contemporary art scene for over twenty years. Shift regularly bring touring musicians from all over Europe and the wider reaches of the UK to Cardiff, and offers residencies and studio space to young artists who often can’t access those opportunities. What happens when these communities and spaces disappear – or worse, don’t exist in the first place?
I left my hometown because they didn’t exist. If there was somewhere like Dyddiau Du in Llanelli when I was growing up, then maybe I wouldn’t have had such a tough time as a queer, autistic kid. Dyddiau Du – and organisations such as Impact and Glitter Cymru – exist so that queer, neurodivergent kids, and often from an ethnic minority background, don’t feel alone. Despite how important these spaces and organisers are to their communities, they are still at the mercy of Cardiff council, estate agents, landlords, leaseholders. We could be removed one day and the next, another chain restaurant or another empty block of flats. We work tirelessly at all hours for little or no pay, because we love the work, and because Cardiff is more than glass buildings and shopping centres. But we push on, continue to serve our communities of predominantly marginalised people, to help them feel safe and valued, because we know what it’s like to not have them growing up.
Soaking bread and eating olives with Dat, Kai, Lien and Vanessa at 3năm Studio, I remembered why I continue to run Dyddiau Du, regardless of unpaid labour, the lack of funding and safety. Coming to a space like this is like returning home. We sit barefoot in the treehouse, not much more than a bamboo platform and a handmade ladder, overlooking the wall into the wild beyond. Above, skyscrapers tower.
This article was commissioned and edited by Gracie Richards thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.