“I don’t think I follow social norms, but I also don’t categorise myself as something more special than anyone else.”
The candidness and modesty of X.Lan’s words are just as present throughout our chat, as they are in her work. With a cute, cartoonish, comic-like style of drawing, she uses art to communicate where words fail.
X.Lan has been drawing since she was very small — originally just because she thought it was the subject she could do best at in school.
However, that all changed after a visit to a coffee shop four years ago.
“I had a goofy conversation with my friends,” explains X.Lan, 28, “and instead of writing a Facebook status about it, I tried drawing a cartoon status instead.”
Surprised at how positive the responses were to that initial cartoon, she decided to take drawing more seriously.
“I just found out naturally, that drawing and sketching is the way I express myself best,” she says. “It’s a tool for communication, to tell my stories; because I’m not good with words!”
Her Facebook page (facebook.com/emtrong.xlan) now has nearly 30,000 followers, where she shares her own drawings based on events in her daily life, as well as taking commissions from people who send her photos or a concept to base a sketch on.
“I feel privileged that people believe in me to help them recreate their personal moments,” says X.Lan. “It feels good when they allow me to use my own language to interpret their memories.”
Her parents used to dismiss her artistic endeavours as just something to do for fun; it’s not a career, they’d say. After a four- year grind of teaching English at university, X.Lan threw in the towel and spent a year working as a freelance artist.
“When a company contacted me to draw a small project for them, I freaked out,” recalls X.Lan. “I didn’t think I was good enough to get money for my art.”
This marked the beginning of a new chapter, as it helped her to realise that if she just took herself more seriously, it would be possible to make a career in art.
After this initial year of freelance work, combined with her new job of managing a network of local artists for Tired City (tiredcity.com), a start-up company which sells souvenirs and stationery printed with art, her parents finally made their peace with her choice to not give up on art.
“I don’t think I’d ever give up drawing, even if I couldn’t make money from it,” X.Lan says. “When it’s your biggest hobby, you can’t just get rid of it easily.”
Vietnam and Art
As a Hanoi-born artist working in Vietnam, X.Lan is well aware of the challenges facing creative or unconventional individuals producing art and other media.
“My work has never been censored (yet), but I know others who have faced that problem; living here makes it quite normal, so we got used to it,” X.Lan says. “But with the development of the internet, it’s getting harder for the government to control or block people from their source of art.”
The other problem she finds is the way local people value art.
No matter how low the price is for a commission, someone will always find a reason to complain it’s not cheap enough. “They don’t realise they’re not just paying for my time drawing,” X.Lan explains, “but they’re also paying for all the hours I’ve spent practising.”
As Vietnam is still a traditional country in many regards, X.Lan thinks it’s actually not so difficult to be considered ‘Bohemian’ here.
“It’s usually just small groups, though,” says X.Lan, “who might think about something new or rebellious.”
A few years ago, for example, X.Lan was playing drums in a punk/grunge band, which went on to become quite famous in the underground community. “I couldn’t keep up with them though, because I had to start working,” X.Lan says.
By her own definition, however, even keeping rhythm for her band was a kind of art.
“I believe everything we do in society is a kind of art; it’s not just about drawing, singing or music,” says X.Lan. “Everything has its own beauty, even scientists and businesspeople can be performers in their own field.”
Photos by Sasha Arefieva
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