INSIDE NAM CHAU'S STUDIO: Mining the Past

Portrait of Nam Chau Portrait of Nam Chau. Photograph by David Fischer.

Nam Chau’s semi-abstract oil paintings are the gateway to her identity. Using found photos online and the memories she collected from her family, Chau creates artworks full of intriguing narratives that put together the puzzle of her unknown Vietnamese heritage. We met the artist in her Berlin studio to discuss her artistic and research processes. Her work is also available for purchase on Sleek Art.

Nam Chau's studio Nam Chau's studio. Photograph by David Fischer.

Where did you train as an artist?

I studied in Berlin at Weißensee and UdK. I also have a Meisterschüler, whose certificate I framed and hung on the wall. Next to it I wish to hang photos of my mother caring for Vietnamese refugees in Berlin when she was my age and photos of my father when he started his career at an airline agency.

Could you tell us about your technical process and what influences your style?

I’m not concerned with developing a style – it’s simply a process of applying paint on to canvas, stroke by stroke and choosing my palette of a few colours. I have different projects about Identity and my main work is the search for my roots and my family. I don't need to read thick books about the Vietnam War or take a political position – but I have a need to paint. My Mother says that I've had a pen and paper in my hand since I was a child. The found internet images function as the replacement for the photos my family never took, or lost. I work in stages: each day is a new day, each stroke is a new attempt but I know when a painting is finished and so I start a new one.

Nam Chau's studio Nam Chau's studio. Photograph by David Fischer.

How about your research process?

I started by searching for substitute photos online from an anonymous family with their own personal narrative. Now I lose myself in the immense amount of "family-replacement-pictures". I think that the act of remembering encourages a constant change of perception, which I need to paint - blurred layers intertwined with detailed ones.

So in your work you only depict family memories?

Years ago, my mother told me that she’d lived in a refugee camp in the south of France. It was only then when I became aware of my Vietnamese heritage, as I don’t have any family photographs from that time. So I asked myself: is it possible to paint about something that I can’t remember?

Nam Chau's Untitled Nam Chau, Untitled, 2013 Oil on canvas, 43 x 50cm Images courtesy of the artist. Available for purchase on Sleek Art

Perhaps that explains why your paintings retain such a photographic quality.

Photos are captured moments. When I finish a painting, I'm able to say to myself, yes, now this is my creation. My paintings have become like selfies whose photographer remains unknown. I would say that I am present and absent at the same time. I am only the medium, the paint, the oil colour.

I'm not sure if I should be using old photographs of unknown people with their own soul and story. But I like to collect as many perspectives of myself as possible, which the internet or other media are able to facilitate. In the same way that there are many possible ways to pose for a picture. I use photographs as disposable material to create a painting that is constantly changing. However, I don't like to talk about feelings, in the sense that I don't like to dictate how people should feel when it comes to looking at my work.

Nam Chau's studio Nam Chau's studio. Photograph by Daniel Fischer.

Do you work in complete silence or do you listen to music?

Today I’m enjoying the silence, but I do adore Maria Callas and Erik Satie. I know the Beatles’ songs by heart and my parents’ LPs that I listened to as a child. Before starting a new project, I like to arrange everything back to its place and paint the walls white. I think I speak for a lot of artists when I say that I try to make order out of chaos as a means to stop the war in my head.

You find that you are more productive when you isolate yourself?

I like to paint in isolation. Even though my studio is underground, when I look out of my window, I’m able to see earth, grass and sky simultaneously.

Nam Chau Nam Chau in her studio. Photograph by David Fischer.

Interview by Mia Wähälä and Abigail Toll

Photography by David Fischer

See more work by Nam Chau available for purchase via Sleek Art.