60 x 40cm
On the silk canvas, the image of a man appears almost translucent, as if shrouded behind a mysterious veil. His composure is strenuous: his neck and shoulders strain to upkeep his face. His eyes are bagged and somber under the shadow of the brim of his conical hat. His palely golden costume is reminiscent of a French army uniform, with a number of medals in bright colors and a green-and-red robe flapped across his chest. Looming behind the man’s back is an iron gate with intricately woven details. Various rays of golden thread spread from the gate and attach to his conical hat, his medals, and his embroidered costume..
The man depicted here is Emperor Khai Dinh (1885 – 1925), the 12th emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, the last ruling power of monarchial Vietnam. When he was crowned as emperor in 1916, the French has already established Vietnam as one of their protectorates. Even though the Nguyen’s monarchy still existed, it had lost most power and had to adhere to the colonial administration. Emperor Khai Dinh is known to maintain a close collaboration with the Franch government, following all of their instructions to give legitimacy to French policies. His subservient attitude towards France provoked numerous criticisms from Vietnamese nationalists. Phan Chu Trinh (1872 – 1926), a Vietnamese nationalist and intellect, sent Khai Dinh a letter discussing seven essential matters in his rule; one part was dedicated to critique the inappropriate and flamboyant ways the king outfitted himself. Thus, Khai Dinh was largely seen as a puppet political figurehead of the Nguyen dynasty.
Viewed in this light, Portrait No.12 then is a depiction of the dwindling situation of the Nguyen’s monarchial power under the French colonial rule. The iron-gate behind Khai Dinh is actually the gate of the building of the General Government of Indochina in Hanoi. It signifies the utmost rule of France over Vietnam, as well as Indochina. The emperor is bound to the gate by golden threads like a marionette – powerless and obedient. Golden threads were used to sew and embroider royal gowns, thus giving Khai Dinh his powerful status, are here used by the colonial symbol to subjugate and manipulate him. Tran Chau has juxtaposed two symbols, one of the French colonial system (the iron gate) and one of the Nguyen dynasty (Emperor Khai Dinh) to raise the questions of power struggle and dominance, of relationships between a colony and its subjects, and of a nation’s disintegration. Who is actually in control here – the puppet or the master? Is there more to this co-habitual relationship than meet the eyes?
Text by Duong Manh Hung.