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Creating in Confinement: Vietnam Lockdown No Shackle for NZ Artist

Vietnam based artist, Hamish Montgomery’s creative juices are not confined to subject matter. The search for art materials is an exercise in creativity itself.


With its iron bars, the view from the apartment in District 9, Thu Duc, Ho Chi Min City, has the aspect of a jail cell.

And, after being in Lockdown for five months in 2021 that’s exactly how it felt for Kiwi artist, Hamish Montgomery.

“The idea of being in Lockdown is quite literal here. For five months I only got to see the world from my apartment window,” says Montgomery.

“The army was on the streets. The end of each road was blocked with barbed wire. You couldn’t go anywhere. It was a serious, hard Lockdown.”

As COVID restrictions slowly eased in Vietnam, Montgomery had a chance to reflect on his Lockdown experience and the body of work he produced during five months of intensive work and self-examination.  

“Strangely, thanks to the virus, I was placed in a situation where I’ve been stretched artistically and it’s been something of a life changing experience. Making art was a respite from all that’s going on in the world.”

Work with what you have

Using whatever was at his disposal, Montgomery has produced an extensive body of work that belies the geographical and material limitations placed upon him.

“I had limited materials so a lot of the work I do is double-sided. It’s not easy to buy good quality art supplies here.

“Most of the work I do is on recycled cardboard and paper, and I’ve been using crayons. Crayons that are now mostly worn down to almost nothing.”

Hamish Montgomery's crayon collection used down to the nub. Photo: Supplied.

Montgomery describes his works as “chaotic balance.”

He adds “I work up an area then I stand back, then I look at it and say ‘I need to bring balance to the work’. It’s about creating a relationship with the work.”

Colours are bright, pop blended with earth tones and dirty greys, emulating both Vietnam’s natural and artificial environments.

Photo: Supplied.

“It all started from when I flew over Vietnam and I was looking down at its beauty. It's chaos but it's beautiful chaos.

“I also have one that represents my apartment. I’ve been stuck behind bars. So, the idea of being in lockdown is literal here.”

Touchy subject

Hamish Montgomery in his Vietnam appartment. Photo: Supplied.

A native of New Plymouth, who also spent time in Levin, Whitecliffe School of Fine Arts graduate Montgomery has also explored one of the more contentious connections between New Zealand and Vietnam. 

“Agent Orange. That’s something that I’ve been concerned about for a long time. I lived in New Plymouth where Ivan Watkins Dow had their plant and I surfed the local beaches. Now living here and seeing the generational impact of the poison has had quite an effect on me.

“So, in one piece I’ve inserted a helicopter to represent the spread of that horrible poison on the landscape and the people – both in Vietnam and New Zealand.

“I want these works to have real impact. It’s got to be in your face.”

The theme of ‘Impact’ is also one that influences Montgomery’s work.

“We hear the word a lot these days. The impact of the virus. The impact of the virus on the economy. The impact of humans on the environment. The word has a negative connotation a lot of the time but in art, impact is a good thing. It’s a necessary thing.”

As part of his interoperations of his current environment, Montgomery also produced a series of self-portraits.

Image: Supplied.

“My understanding of the concept of the self-portrait is the result of a self-exploration or a self-identification. Whether you choose to represent its true form or an abstraction of the final result, it is still a self-portrait.

“I enjoy working in abstraction and the self-portraits are a way to push and test myself. At times I might have pushed some of them too far, but that’s part of the test. It shows some emotion. There’s no point in denying your emotional state when you are producing art.

“It can be painful at times but actually I’m now quite comfortable in that space.”

Liberated by lockdown

There is no doubt the frustration of working with scant resources and being confined by space was challenging at times. However, Montgomery thinks this led him to be truly honest with himself about how he works best.

“I thought about it and actually I do my best work when I’m a bit angry. The work just flows. Some people say your mind is open when you’re happy. I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. 

“I get too reflective when I’m happy and it stunts me. I need an element of frustration that leads to something cathartic through art. It’s about being honest with yourself and that being reflected in the work.”

Image: Supplied.

Despite another year of uncertainty ahead, Montgomery has some goals for himself and his art.

“The next step is to refine my work, but I really like producing art this way. It’s liberating to discover what you can do… You really have to push yourself. 

“I can’t control what happens in the world, but how I adapt myself and my art to that world is up to me.”


Written by

Bevan Sanson

24 Feb 2022