“Artwork is an extension of the self”: Driving conversations about art and mental health in Vietnam


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“Artwork is an extension of the self”: Driving conversations about art and mental health in Vietnam

If numbers could talk, the 15 million Vietnamese people dealing with mental illnesses—depression and anxiety being the top two conditions—would have a lot to say. However, due to public stigma towards mental health, underfunded facilities for mentally-ill individuals, and a modest number of trained practitioners in psychology, their stories are rarely amplified.

In this feature, writer Linh Nguyen speaks to Tricia Nguyen, the founder of the Wintercearig project in Ho Chi Minh City, and Thuy Nguyen Duc Nhu, one of the first art psychotherapists in Vietnam, to find out more about how they’re driving conversations about mental health in the country.

Due to its war-torn history, Vietnam is built upon a narrative of “resilience and courage”. Previous generations overcame hardship in order for us to live in peace and happiness. As a result, discussion around sadness, stress, fear, anxiety, and depression have become taboo: many people are unfamiliar with the psychological concept of mental health, and don’t understand that it’s not “just a phase.” Financial barriers—therapy sessions in the country are expensive, ranging from 800,000 VND to 1,200,000 VND an hour ($35-$52/hour) —also make Vietnamese people reluctant to seek professional help.

With this in mind, you might think that art therapy—a concept even more foreign than regular therapy—is sure to be met with skepticism. However art and other methods of creative non-verbal communication are invaluable tools that allow people to express their difficult-to-articulate emotions. Thuy Nguyen Duc Nhu, one of the first Art Psychotherapists in Vietnam who is certified by the The Australian, New Zealand and Asian Creative Arts Therapies Association (ANZACATA), says that art therapy is a spectrum. It can range from personal practices using art to let out any kinds of negativity—through poetry and painting for example—to trained psychotherapists using art to help their clients. “In contrast to the usual inaccessible forms of therapy, art therapy is more approachable as people can go into sessions without talking and still communicate their stories,” says Thuy Nguyen.

These ideas were formative for Tricia Nguyen, a theatre performer and former dance who now runs a community organization curating exhibitions of art works created by participants in expressive art workshops. She was inspired to set it up due to her own mental health journey, which started during childhood: at the age of nine, she was sent from Vietnam to the UK to attend Rossall Boarding School. “Being in England was magical and amazing. It felt like Hogwarts,” she tells COLORS. “I had more freedom and became very independent, but I also felt like I lost the connection I was supposed to have with my family.” As a result of becoming self-sufficient from a very young age, Tricia learnt to deal with everything she faced “head on”. This included an incidence of sexual assault that occurred she moved back home to attend the Ho Chi Minh Dance Academy. While she wanted to speak up about it, everyone at the institution told her that she shouldn’t make a fuss. She was close to finishing her training, and “making a fuss” would tarnish her name, meaning all her years of hard work would go to waste. “How can you love an artform so much and push through so many challenges for it, but then still have to suffer at the hands of the institution that instilled you with that love in the first place?” Tricia asked herself.

“The artwork is the extension of the self. What people do together in the room forms a holding experience, where the mind and soul are supported and nurtured.”

Years later, Tricia set up Wintercearig, a Ho Chi Minh City-based mental health awareness project using art to help people going through hard times. The organization’s name means winter-sorrow, a prolonged sadness. For Tricia, it’s important that people know that this gloomy season doesn’t last forever. Thuy Nguyen agrees, emphasizing that mental illnesses don’t only take a few days to be resolved. Through constant effort and the right support, that winter will soon develop into spring, summer, and fall. The important first step is to accept things the way they are, and then seek the necessary help.

Based in a cozy community art space called Lặng Spot, Wintercearig regularly hosts events ranging from  from peer-to-peer listening activities to yoga sessions, coffee mornings, and breathing and art workshops. While all of these activities are free and open to the public, the majority of Wintercearig attendees are young women.

Wintercearig first came to life in 2017 when Tricia, accompanied by a group of her dance friends and visual artists, conducted a performance on the theme of loneliness at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. Interacting with paintings inspired by the topic, the dancers executed expressive choreographic steps representing and expressing their personal emotions. The performance was also assigned a theme color: a cross between Prussian and ultramarine blue. “It’s the color of the universe, a deep dark blue. We felt it was a nice symbolic beginning”, says Tricia.

After this humble start, Tricia wanted to delve deeper into the topic of depression. The following year, using the theme of the forest as a starting point, Wintercearig created an interactive maze in Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts that visitors were invited to experience. The process of navigating the maze was intended as a metaphorical representation of the journey of life.

In 2019, Tricia decided that she didn’t just want to make performances and exhibitions for people to experience, but to hand over the creative reins to participants to make work themselves, and to experience the healing power of art in the process. To do so, Winterceraig developed ‘Clearing’, an initiative where participants—mainly university students—are invited to Lặng Spot once a week for six months to create their own artworks and clear their minds. Artworks produced during this time don’t have to be perfect, and the aim of the sessions is not to develop their creative prowess. “Essentially, the artwork is an extension of the self,” adds Thuy Nguyen. “What people do together in the room forms a holding experience, where the mind and soul are supported and nurtured.”

“It’s alright to let yourself open up, feel all the emotions and cry sometimes, you know.”

Convincing people to commit to a six month project requires a great deal of effort. To address this, Nguyen and her team set up a two step filter system in their recruitment process: after registration, participants are required to answer a 21-question survey, explaining the reasons why they want to attend the workshops and whether they are aware of having any mental health conditions. After this, they have an in-person conversation with someone from Wintercearig to identify whether participants’ motivations matched with what the organization’s planning. In these talks, Tricia and her team emphasize that Wintercearig is a safe space for all. Part of this is their rule on names: no real names are used during the workshops—many people prefer to remain anonymous due to the aforementioned stigmas around attending therapy—and no ages are disclosed. This simple yet powerful rule overrides the long-standing etiquette in Vietnam which dictates that hierarchy and order is decided through age. The “Clearing”, is therefore an equal space for everyone to join.

While participants still drop out of Wintercearig’s programmes for various reasons, several participants hold on for the whole six months and continue to attend activities at Lặng Spot. One notable example is a medical student who intends to stop studying in favor of pursuing art, which makes her happier. She is fighting to follow her passion, even though it means giving up something that her parents chose for her. “I admire how she’s being true to herself, and going after the life that she wants,” says Tricia.

Since ‘Clearing’, Wintercearig has been going from strength to strength, running more and more projects. Their most recent initiative was Art for Change, a 2022 crowdfunding initiative featuring  a photography showcase highlighting the stories of people going through mental health issues. There were also two dramatic performances titled ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ and ‘Addiction’ staged in collaboration with Dragonfly Theater Company that promoted understanding around mental illness and alcoholism. The money raised from the events is intended to be used to build a more concrete space for art therapy seekers in Ho Chi Minh City.

Over the past 5 years, Wintercearig has tried different ways to create a healing space for everyone, including its staff members. As the project’s founder, Tricia found it healing to always remember to try on new things outside of work. “This year, I acted in a play called Stockholm as a main character,” she says. “It’s a play about Stockholm syndrome, so I’ve learnt a lot through the script. Next year, I might try to direct something, who knows?” Tricia adds with a big smile on her face.

Looking to the future, Tricia hopes to see more open-mindedness, more judgment-free mindset, and ultimately more freedom in sharing one’s problems and feelings among Vietnamese people. She is not competitive, and is in fact excited to see more organizations with similar practices to Wintercearig emerge. “The more, the merrier. As long as people have a space to nurture their mental health, I’m happy,” she says. At Wintercearig, Tricia and her team are planning to address the topic of men—a demographic that not only in Vietnam but around the world struggle to express their emotions—and mental health in particular. “It’s alright to let yourself open up, feel all the emotions and cry sometimes, you know.”

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.

Text: Linh Nguyen
Photography: All images supplied by Wintercearig
Videography: Linh Dan


What our community says

I wanna say to the people that dealing with mental health due to a lot of circumstances, know that you are not alone and we will rise and thrive. Love #colors

Adam - Morocco 🇲🇦

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