Nguyen Phuong Thao is a Class of 2023 Fulbrighter who has just finished her Visual Culture course. It revealed to her an entire new career path that she is now greatly excited about.

For a very long time, as a math major, I had set investment banking and finance as my career goal. So when came the time to take the core course Visual Culture, I wasn’t sure how well I could follow or how much interest I would have in this seemingly art-oriented class. I was very scared. After all, lots of my classmates were very knowledgeable about the topic. I questioned myself: how can I benefit from this class? How can I participate? I was at a loss as to how to proceed and contribute my ideas to the conversations. I saw myself as completely different from them, an outlier in both my opinions and ways of thinking around the material.

Fulbright students visiting a lacquer studio in Da Nang

Fortunately, studying here I realized so much of what we learn can be used to succeed in other classes, and there is much to learn from other areas of expertise. Vietnamese Studies for example really prepared us to deeply and efficiently think through our many readings. Logic and Limitations taught me a lot of what I know about not only expressing my ideas, but to really make sure they are conveyed. Even my advisor here at Fulbright, Kevin Hart, specializes in literature, not math. We always strive to find different ways to approach a topic. He opened the way for me to take full advantage of the class, and his advice was very straightforward. Try to see the correlations, the connections, and how you can apply this knowledge to your goals. Find your own questions to ask. The obvious but shallow solution was to use visual culture as a useful topic to discuss with people from the finance industry, my chosen field, which didn’t satisfy me.

I then came to several realizations.

Firstly, I’ve always been worried of the possibility in investment banking to focus too much on profits, and thus lose a part of my moral principles or my humanity. I’m preparing the chartered financial analyst program, and CFA graduates have to take a pledge of ethics and integrity. I take this very seriously. We need to see more ethics in the finance world. We need to build a better understanding of integrity, and more empathy. Can we have a standard of ethics to guide us through life? Do we decide on a case by case basis? This question stays with me and courses like visual culture help me investigate.

Secondly, it became evident this was a whole industry I could invest in. What is a metric for success in our visual culture class? Knowledge about art, references and concepts to experience it, articulate it? That’s not the entire picture. We should look about the entire ecosystem that makes the art world, from the paintings, to the artists, but also the audience who experience art, and the market. So I took this market approach to the class.

Thao and Aaron, her Visual Culture teacher

Aaron who teaches Visual Culture gave us so much support, even when it comes to disagreeing and challenging. I was very afraid my ideas would go contrary to everyone else’s, but he was completely open to self-study and encourages exploration. This was a platform where I could contribute to the community from a very different background.

And then I fell in love with visual culture. I loved to debate and argue, was thrilled by the readings, discovered so much about myself and my assumptions. Before visual culture, I already enjoyed art and photography, but had never considered myself knowledgeable enough to pursue it. Trading and making profits were always important concerns for my career choices. Now I am more solid, and trust that I can follow my interest and still make money. Keeping an open mind, challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone brought me to unexpected discoveries, and I came to decide I would open an ethical art dealership.

Thao talking to Oanh Phi Phi, an accomplished lacquer artist

Indeed, through the class and with our professors’ help, I’ve had the chance to talk with artists and other actors in the industry, and discovered that commercial art dealers take a very large commission when selling artworks, which must be corrected if we want thriving and fair commerce.  I’ve researched lacquer in particular, which holds so much promise as a booming market inside and outside of Vietnam. I can use connections in institutions to help others and move the conversation forward, raising the profile of Vietnam internationally, while promoting and improving access to art and art education, which is always a challenge. I can also use my skills in relationship building, marketing, product sales, turn my expertise into a force for society and others. This course I was so reluctant to take, showed me a path forward. A path where I can follow my passion, help others and my country, while securing my financial future all at the same time. A path of purpose.

Nguyen Phuong Thao (Class of 2023)

“When I was in high school, I studied lacquer, but the difference with painting wasn’t clear to me, except that we used eggshells and gold. I didn’t really get the cultural implications of why this medium is so important to Vietnam. After our class, readings, and our workshop, when I go back to the museums, I understand how unique and special lacquer is.” Nguyen Ngo Thuc Khang, former Visual Culture student.

Visual culture studies, understood as an academic field that emphasizes the cultural – rather than aesthetic value of visual communication, is a staple of liberal arts education around the world. To build an understanding of visual culture is to contextualize historical, social, political and economic perspectives, a set of competencies valuable to students of all backgrounds.

Visual Culture is a core course at Fulbright, built upon by professors Aaron Anderson and Skultip Sirikantraporn from a prototype devised by students of the Co-Design Year. In its current form, the course is composed with lacquer as its centerpiece. “It was a natural fit to build the class around this medium. Lacquer, or son mai, is the quintessential Vietnamese art, a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture and history.”

A Vietnamese Medium, a Vietnamese Education

Fulbright strives not only to provide an education of international standards, but to do so through a Vietnamese lens. Aaron therefore secured the collaboration of Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi, a celebrated Vietnamese American artist investigating lacquer as a medium for contemporary art. For Aaron, “this class would not have existed had I not met with Phi Phi.”

Phi Phi’s research and interests are deeply aligned with visual culture studies, as well as inherently Vietnam-centered: “with a long historical tradition as a craft, son mai was reinvented as a painting medium in colonial Vietnam in the 1920’s and was the result of the collision between western art tradition and traditional Vietnamese feudal crafts. To me, it is much more than an image-making medium. It is a cultural medium that has embodied all of the transformations in Vietnamese society through changes in its forms and usage.”

Beyond the medium, language is also critical. During the Co-Design phase, students helped formulate the curriculum for the course and identified a mastery of concepts both in Vietnamese and English as a fundamental goal. In the words of Phan Ngoc Lan Nhi, one such Co-Designer, “to learn bilingually is to stay an active participant of Vietnamese culture.” Writing assignments therefore require key concepts to be provided in both languages. Discussions with guest speakers, such as Phi Phi, are also conducted bilingually.

Preparatory work included examining major schools of art and reflecting on their influence in Vietnam, incorporating Vietnamese art history as well as foundational art theory and visual arts. “In class, students must develop the tools to not only theorize Vietnamese society, learning to document and articulate it, but also to contribute to it. They feel incredibly responsible,” reflects Aaron.

As such, an in-depth focus on examining Vietnamese culture opens possibilities for our students to contribute to its understanding. Khanh Minh, one of the participating students, describes her experience: “The course really helps us come up with our own theory of lacquer in Vietnam, which has not really been formalized here. It is not a crystallized identity; we can think about how lacquer painting speaks to us, about new ways to think about Vietnamese tradition. It’s not a monolith. Maybe Vietnamese tradition is also a part of globalization, at a confluence of influences, which can be thought and talked about by anyone from local artisans to overseas art theorists, and Vietnamese college students broadly.”

Theory that comes alive

Khanh Minh’s biggest takeaway is this opportunity to own your education: “As someone who has not studied deeply and professionally about art, I can still make my own theories. It’s about conversation and dialogue, between people who have been in the field for a long time, but also with people like us who have barely started. We can always exchange ideas together.” For Aaron, this is the “hidden goal,” a natural continuation of the course: by giving students the necessary background knowledge as well as equipping them with a shared theoretical foundation, Aaron and Skultip wanted them to be comfortable and confident engaging with artists and other cultural actors.

Last quarter, the course culminated with a lacquer workshop and discussion, facilitated by Oanh Phi Phi and Dinh Van Son, a prolific Vietnamese lacquer artist. On November 30, this quarter, our students had the opportunity to visit Phi Phi’s studio in Da Nang. This is where the Fulbright philosophy of active learning shines: standing at the locus of creation and innovation, students gain insights beyond what classrooms have to offer.

Former Co-Designer Dang Thi Hoai Linh, who also shared in the effort to build the curriculum, observes that “the spirit of Fulbright is experiential. We need to bring students into contact with people working directly in the field we are studying.” In the context of lacquer, Aaron elaborates that “knowledge of son mai comes alive through hands on practice or studio presentations very differently from looking at paintings in a museum. Without seeing or doing, it is hard to understand the creative process or lacquer production.”

As Khanh Minh puts it: “Witnessing every stage of the process, how it comes together from initial sketches to pieces at various stages of progress, layers upon layers, we got to see it is messier than expected. Many projects are ongoing at a given time, so many ideas not fixed in terms of subject or form. You want to explore everything, investigate the details, touch and hold and inquire about the purpose of everything.To me, that is the mindset essential to lifelong learning. ”

This is not about art

Despite common misconceptions, the course does not solely benefit students specializing in art. “Many of our classmates before taking the course were worried that our visual culture class would only help those who specialize through the art stream, but it also benefits students with an engineering or scientific focus. It really encourages thinking about those fields in a transdisciplinary way, especially since lacquer painting requires a deep understanding of iteration processes, chemistry and physics, so we can work together that way,” says Khanh Minh.

As a student with less of an art focus, Nhut An benefitted equally. “Even though I have a technical approach and interest, this was a great experience for my education. I don’t have a solid background in art, but I was very interested in the technical constraints of lacquer and Phi Phi’s approach. It seems very similar to how engineers tackle a problem: deconstructing into steps in the most optimal manner a problem to achieve a specific goal. An insight I wasn’t expecting is that art making is a form of inquiry, raising questions and sparking debate. This gave me ideas for my final paper.”

As Phi Phi concluded, there is a universal value to art education in how it nurtures critical thinking for all. “There’s a stereotype about artists thinking outside the box, and it’s not just a stereotype. Artists aren’t involved with the demands of an institution and think very independently, trying to communicate their thoughts. To think outside the norm and being able to articulate ideas in varied shapes and forms, and seeing strategies of how value is created, in art or otherwise, is a skill important for anyone.”

Antoine R. Touch