Vietnam’s first ever licensed nude photography exhibition took place last month in Ho Chi Minh City, a collection of portraits entitled Tao Tac, which translates loosely to “subtle pieces making a whole when put together.”

Hosted by the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association Headquarters, the show collated over four years of shoots, editing and planning by Vietnamese photographer Hao Nhien.

The most difficult step in organizing the exhibition, he says, was the process of preparing the bare content, but for many of his contemporaries the fact that he was able to lift the curtain on such content was an even greater achievement in Vietnam’s highly censored context.

“This is a sign that the door might be opening wider for similar events to be permitted,” Hao Nhien’s fellow photographer Nguyen A told local media. “What makes me even happier is that Ho Chi Minh City [authorities] have taken the lead with such an open-minded decision.”

In a nation where freedom of expression has long been limited, the exhibition marked an important step for Vietnam’s arts community.

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A photo in Vietnamese photographer Hao Nhien’s recent Tao Tac nude photo exhibit held in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Courtesy of Hao Nhien.

Civil conflict and a post-independence heavily centralized state put a hold on individuality for much of the second half of the 20th century. Not until the doi moi, or renovation, reform policy launched in 1986 did the state begin to open its doors to private ownership, foreign ideas and international trade.

Even now, over 30 years later, creative expression is not remotely free. It is also reasonably ambiguous, since there are few clear-cut guidelines as to how censorship laws apply to different art forms and in different contexts.

As a result, the censorship process is often left open to interpretation. According to Nguyen Qui Duc, manager of the Hanoi art-space Tadioto, the general rule is to avoid anything remotely anti-state and anything too uncultured, shocking or deviant. Any content that breaks those general rules, he says, will be banned from public display or distribution.

But despite the controversial nature of his exhibition, Hao Nhien says he never really had any doubts about receiving a permit for Tao Tac.

The show was not only the first nude exhibition in Vietnam, but also the first exhibition for Hao Nhien, who normally works as a commercial photographer specializing in fashion and front-page magazine shoots.

“This kind of [nude] photography has been my passion for years,” he says. “I was lucky because everything came together – the authorities, I had collected enough photos, and my colleagues and friends supported me.”

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Vietnamese photographer Hao Nhien. Photo: Courtesy of Hao Nhien

His aim with Tao Tac was to change how Vietnamese society perceive nudity, reintroducing it to them as a soft, artistic concept rather than something cheap and ugly.

He was pushing barriers, to be sure, but because his photography was tasteful and had nothing to do with political commentary, he was reasonably confident that Vietnam’s ever slightly more progressive censors would approve it.

“I don’t really think about politics in my art, it’s not involved,” he says. “Obviously it took some time to get my exhibition approved, but… I think as long as I focus on creativity, on the art, it will [always] be ok.”

Oil painter Hoang Nam Viet also now works under the belief that as long as artists make art for art’s sake, and not with any politically subversive agenda, they are usually free to explore whatever subject matter they choose.

“I’m not the kind of person to start a revolution,” he says. “I’m just a painter who loves painting and loves this country.”

Viet is a self-taught artist who left his marketing job seven years ago to embrace life as a full-time creative. He also opened a Ho Chi Minh City cafe, Hoang Thi, which is like a work of art in itself – warmly lit with low, rustic furniture and dusty music emanating from somewhere behind a glass-tiled bar.

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Vietnamese oil painter Hoang Nam Viet at his Hoang Thi cafe in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Zoe Osborne

Sometimes Viet’s art carries no particular meaning, but when he does have a message to convey, he does so subtly. “I try to express some spirit from life, from reality, in my paintings – sometimes from society, sometimes from politics,” he says. “I want to show some of the things that are happening whilst I’m alive.”

He adds: “The meaning in my art is under layers, so [viewers don’t] understand – I have to explain it. Sometimes people recognize [details] about politics, even the government recognizes them, but they have no key to open the concept because my voice is not too direct or strong.”

Other artists are deliberately obvious with their political messages. Since singer-songwriter Mai Khoi ran as an independent candidate for the National Assembly in 2016, she has devoted herself and her music to political action.

“People here tended to have a narrow understanding of politics as an area of activity that is confined to government officials, something that goes on ‘up there’ – something that…is considered sensitive and inaccessible to ordinary people,” she says. “By nominating myself… I wanted to change that perception.”

In reality, it is perfectly legal for an independent candidate to run for the state election, although in practice government seats are usually reserved for allies and members of the ruling Communist Party.

“My campaign had a large impact on people because no celebrity had ever nominated themselves to run before,” says Khoi. “I will keep raising awareness and promoting political participation – in fact I have started to write a book about my experience and hope that it will inspire a whole generation of young people.”

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Vietnamese songwriter, performing artist and political aspirant Mai Khoi. Photo: Courtesy of Mai Khoi

Even before her political stand-up, Khoi was no stranger to controversy, using her music and her celebrity influence to speak out about sexuality, LGBT rights and violence against women.

Now that she is banned from the mainstream Vietnamese pop scene, Mai Khoi makes music to show her listeners that ordinary people can have a say in how their country is run. She has to pay close attention to what she says and how she says it in order to protect herself from arrest or legal action.

“I have to be very careful in the way I write on Facebook and the way I write songs,” she says. “I need to make sure I use the right words…I work with a lawyer. When I write something I ask him to check it!”

While Vietnam’s dissident movement is growing, at the moment it is still small. Most contemporary artists opt to avoid political comment, but there is growing interest in pushing other boundaries, both in terms of censorship and social norms.

Sophie Hughes, founder of Sophie’s Art Tour, recently explained this trend in Vietnam to Verve Magazine. “Over recent years, more spaces have opened where artists can show their work and more young artists are going abroad and being exposed to different influences and a variety of contemporary materials. That has made them more experimental.”

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An oil painting hangs at painter Hoang Nam Viet’s Hoang Thi cafe in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Courtesy of Hoang Nam Viet

Vietnamese society is changing for similar reasons, connecting with the wider world through social media or, for the wealthy, travel. ”Vietnam is better [now],” say Viet, laughing.

“Young people from abroad come back here – maybe students who went abroad for their studies – and they are different. They connect people and they bring them closer to the world.”

To Vietnamese filmmaker Charlie Nguyen, the state’s censorship system has no choice but to evolve in line with changing social norms.

“You know, everyone knows that you can’t have a film industry if things don’t change – there would be no perspective,” he says. “So [the censorship board] all recognize that, but the changing… has to be one little bit at a time.”

Nguyen says the system is slowly changing, but if people want to make art in the context of today’s Vietnam they have to accept the current level of liberalization. “You can’t fight the system – we had one movie banned because we fought it,” he says.

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Vietnamese filmmaker Charlie Nguyen has stood toe-to-toe with state censors. Photo: Courtesy of Charlie Nguyen

“Later on I talked to [the censorship board] and they said, ‘you know, you guys mishandled the whole situation.’ If we were more gentle there would have been ways to get that movie released.”

His film, Bui Doi Cho Lon, didn’t pass the censors when it was filmed in 2013 but he believes that if he and his team had approached the censorship process in a more “Vietnamese” way, things might have been different. “When you have a problem you should… find ways to solve the problem privately and quietly,” Nguyen says.

For now, though, a certain level of sensitivity needs to be applied to all art-making in Vietnam if artists want to explore certain topics. Nguyen says it’s all in how you view it, suggesting censorship could actually be a springboard for greater creativity.

“Some people [in the industry] say we cannot have good movies because we’re being restricted so much…I disagree with that,” he says. “The restriction forces you to be creative.”