Exploring the many hallways, courtyards and themed rooms of the XQ Historical Village brings an image of two resistant forces: a sort of yin-yang relationship between the ancient tradition of embroidery and the subversive modern art it can produce.
Some of the "paintings” can take months, even years to create. A closer look at the art gives a sense of divine dedication coursing through each carefully sewn strand. This is hardly surprising – embroiderers sometimes refer to their piece as their son or daughter, and output as much care and attention to it as they would for a real child. While at the XQ Historical Village, don't miss the strange wooden room dedicated to a burned section of the gallery, full of abstract photography and jars containing ashes from the fire. And make sure to stop by the Agora room, full of modernist embroidery that has people in online discussions ranting and raving about XQ’s new direction.
Since its inception, XQ has morphed into an embroidery giant, its threads extending to seven major cities in Vietnam, with offices sprouting in the U.S. and Canada. Its largest operation remains in Dalat, where XQ was founded by Ms. Xuan, Mr. Quan and a small group of embroiders in 1992. The Historical Village itself officially opened in 2001. Mr. Quan is said to wear two masks: one of tradition and one of modernity.
Take the time to explore the Village (VND20,000 for the entrance, and VND50,000 for a guided tour), and you will see this dual personality subtly reflected on XQ’s walls. The gallery is at once a shrine to traditional art and its sepulcher – a birth place of subversive ideas that transcend the status quo, and a mausoleum forever honoring the tradition that allowed these ideas to flourish.
The many themed rooms include portraits of government officials and celebrities, jewelry displays, charcoal paintings, giant readable books on embroidery (they’re about a meter in length), 3D embroidery (or “pop-out” embroidery), old photographs, animal and nature galleries, and surrealist works. The Village has numerous open-air sections as well, with gardens, gift shops, a few cafes, eateries and more. It’s easy to lose yourself in the sheer immensity of the place.
After thoroughly getting lost in XQ's labyrinthine confines (make sure to pick up the map at the entrance), I found myself understanding why I was so drawn to the place.
If, like me, you visited the silk factory (a regular stop on the Easy Rider tour) before going to XQ, you’re in for quite a surprise. The embroidery being sewn for show at the factory are rough sketches compared to some of the masterworks on display at the Village. Hell, even the wall of rejected embroidery in the initial gallery is miles ahead of typical offerings you find in stores – with a heftier price tag, of course (think in terms of tens and hundreds of millions of dong).
XQ’s size plays to its advantage: it’s difficult to get bored with the variety of art on display, the live music playing out front and the alluring (yet stolid) workers in Ai Dai’s positioned throughout the galleries.
I suggest you avoid group tours or the packs of chatty tourists that may be roaming the halls and delve into the galleries on your own terms. Don’t rely too much on the map until you have to go back (or find the bathroom). Go ahead, get lost. You might be surprised by what you discover.
The first time you step into Agora, especially if you’re one of the very few people there, is a near-religious experience – at least, it was for me. More so than any church or pagoda I’ve ever been to. Agoras in the ancient world were central “gathering places” where political discussion, trade and other vital activities took place. Agora is XQ’s dedicated space for artists to shake off the limitations of tradition and use their pieces to express personal ideas. It's awesome to see an expressive mind unleashing its innermost thoughts through such a traditional medium.
The surrealist vibe follows you as you transition from the quasi-feminist and non-conformist embroidery art in Agora to the “birth and death” room, where a traditional embroidered silk funeral dress lays eerily upon a table, never to be worn. Across is the dress of birth, also not to be used for practical purposes. Both are used during festivals or events, touted upon their platforms.
Continuing on, you will find the main garden.
As I rested on a stump of wood among the eclectic arrangements of flowers, plants and pines, a brown bird fell from an upstairs balcony face-first into the ground, hastily picking itself up and sauntering casually about on the lower level. Befuddled, I burst into laughter and asked a worker nearby what the bird was doing there. She explained that management bought two rare pheasants to roam the garden. Neither could fly.
On the other side of the garden you can step into a small open-air hall to look over some old photographs, or check out an elder embroiderer’s house, which is not as garishly adorned with embroidered items as you might think. From the garden, there are further galleries and an even larger open courtyard with a few gift shops, where you can purchase embroidered silk costumes, hats and cloth.
Several hours may be enough to get what you need out of the gallery. But try not to leave without absorbing a whisk of XQ's eclectic ambiance – a weird mash of funeral home, dreamland, temple, circus and art gallery.