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Dinh Q. Lê, master of multimedia art and mentor to fellow artists across southeast Asia, has died, aged 56

Shock and sorrow has poured out from Asia’s art community over the death on 6 April of the Vietnamese-American multimedia artist Dinh Q. Lê at the age of 56. 

“Dinh Q. Lê was not only a great artist but a really great man,” says Katie de Tilly, founder of his Hong Kong gallery, 10 Chancery Lane. “He had a keen sense of seeing and was able to translate very strong messages into art. He was a profound story teller. He was the kindest and most humble man who wanted to serve others in their art journey and started the non-profit arts organization Sàn Art in Vietnam to help young Vietnamese artists on their path. It was such an honour to work with him and to know him as a friend. We already miss him so much and behold him in Divine Light and Love as he moves on.” 

"Our founder, our friend and our mentor Dinh Q. Lê is gone. We are beyond devastated to announce this news,” was posted on Facebook by Sàn Art, the influential Ho Chi Minh City non-profit artists’ space that Lê founded in 2007. Also a library and educational centre, the grassroots initiative has been at the forefront of developing and promoting artistic innovation in Vietnam. 

Lê is survived by his longtime partner Ngô Minh Hảo and their recently adopted kitten named Monkey. He is known as much for his mentorship and support for art communities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam—where he lived from 1996 and where he died—and all of Southeast Asia as for his powerful works challenging politics, history and memory.

“Goodbye, old friend. Rest in power,” the Singapore-based artist Heman Chong writes on Instagram. “Thank you for always being so nice and kind to me. Thank you for reminding me to never short sell myself and talk shit about my own work. Your advice and mentorship has been invaluable. I will always be grateful for your friendship.” 

Lê’s works incorporated photography, video, sculpture and installation, and he was best known for his distinctive photo-weaving works, a tribute to a Vietnamese tradition he first learned as a child from his aunt. His work took sharp aim at the violent history of, and global narratives surrounding, Southern Vietnam, incorporating topics like migration, labour, censorship, exploitation and propaganda. His perspective as a gay man as well as an American immigrant from Vietnam informed his explorations about the mutability of self-identity and personal and historical memory. 

Born in 1968 in Ha Tien, Vietnam, near the border with Cambodia, Dinh Q. Lê, with his mother and six siblings, fled Khmer Rouge violence and emigrated to the United States in 1978. Lê received his BFA from UC Santa Barbara in 1989 and MFA from The School of Visual Arts in 1992. He moved from New York to Ho Chi Minh City in 1996 and regained Vietnamese citizenship only in 2021. Lê had only just completed construction in his home village of a coastal floating studio, which he hoped would draw more artists to visit the area. 

Lê in 2010 received the Prince Claus Award for his outstanding contribution to cultural exchange. In addition to 10 Chancery Lane, Lê is co-represented by STPI in Singapore, P•P•O•W in New York, Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, and Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles. Lê took part in major exhibitions including Documenta (13) in 2012, the 2003 Venice Biennale, the 2006 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, and the 2008 Singapore Biennale. His solo exhibitions included shows at Asia Society, New York, in 2005, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and the Hiroshima City Art Museum in 2015. 

“Dinh was an uncle to everyone in the Vietnamese art scene, young or old, local or foreigner, mentor to many,” says Christopher Moore, the Ho Chi Minh City-based founder of the online art magazine Ran Dian. Moore had known Lê since the 1990s. Last year, Lê and Moore along with Quynh Nguyen of the Nguyen Art Foundation and Dominic Scriven of the Dogma Collection established Đương Đại Việt, an organisation to promote and professionalise the Vietnamese art scene. "He was very wry and often acerbic," Moore says. "He was also generous with time and resources. Vietnam's seminal art space Sàn Art, which Dinh founded with artists Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Tiffany Chung would not have survived without Dinh's support.” 

“He regularly participated in public debates on all sorts of topics beyond the world of art,” like a debate on Asian colorism organised by Sàn Art and the German consulate, Moore recalls. “He was also intolerant of pretension and fools—ready to call out academics,” such as excoriating on social media a white academic who challenged Lê’s credentials to discuss racial issues.