War on Repeat

Today my favourite newspaper vendor (see my last post) delivered me a story in person rather than within the pages of the newspapers he sells.

For today he told me how he had been born and brought up in Saigon. He served in the ARVN (the South Vietnamese Army) between 1973 and 1975, and that after the North’s victory, he was sent to a re-education camp. He was only there a year, though – I get the impression that the authorities felt he had been a crap soldier, which is why they let him out so soon.

He told me he has many bad memories of the war, and the opening night of Allez Boo bar the other day brought back some of them, as the music blasting out was virtually the soundtrack to the war when he was young.

I said it must be really difficult for the people like him; they try to move on from the war, but then people keep harking back to it. He agreed. (Although I doubt the people making a good living from war-related stuff, like DMZ tours etc, feel the same way!)

Pic in HCMC Art Museum of guns poking out of a clump of trees at night during Vietnam War.

Anyway, after our chat, I went to the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. And guess what? A good proportion of the art there is about the war – even stuff produced in the 1990s. To be honest, although the building is beautiful, I wasn’t too big a fan of the art inside. Despite what I said about harping on about the war, I’m almost ashamed to admit that my favourite picture was a war-related one: a black, grey and white picture of gun barrels poking out of a clump of bamboo. It was painted by an American, though, called John Plunkett.

Plunkett was the only artist with a non-Vietnamese name, as far as I could tell. My favourite picture by a local artist was “Thinking” by Nguyen Van Doan, a picture of a young monk looking pensive while his friend sleeps. The lighting reminded me of that in an Old Master or something.

However, like I said, most of the art involved the war in some way: “The Courageous Soldier’s Heart”, for example, or “Action After Nightfall”; pictures of fighting, women waving loved ones off to war, camp kitchens, soldiers and jeeps being rowed through the Delta on boats.

Upstairs there was a small exhibition “Revolutionary Artists’ Working Materials”, including a “pens holder made from head cracker”. (It looked like a Victorian doorknob!)

On sale downstairs were what the description didn’t hesitate to call “Propaganda Pictures”. “Uncle Ho’s Soldier and People in Tay Bac”, for example, and “Building Tay Nguyen Irony Area”. I suspect that’s supposed to be “iron area”, a mine or a factory, say, although given what I’ve read about the forced relocation of Montagnards (people in the Highlands), Irony could well be right.

Also on display were the entries in a children’s art competition. I suspect – and indeed hope – the kids were given the subjects rather than came up with them themselves. Why? Well, how many British seven-year-olds would choose to paint something like: “Celebrate the Victory of 30 April” (a man in a tank, someone in a car and people waving flowers)? Or “Power come to my village”, a cheery pastoral scene of cows against a backdrop of a massive power line. Yeah, I know getting electricity for the first time would have been incredibly exciting for these kids, but enough to paint a picture of it? Really?

There were some ordinary pics – “My House” and “My Family Celebrate the Tet”, for example. Then there was “Dreams of Children”, for which an eight-year-old won third prize for a pic of Uncle Ho cuddling two small children.

One thing I found especially interesting was how in so many cases, the people in the pictures had pink skin, the colour that Western/Caucasian kids would use if they were painting themselves. Even “Mr Giang, a hero of Vietnamese legend” was pink. A reflection of how Vietnamese kids see, or would like to see, themselves, or a reflection of the availability of paint colour in Vietnam? I have no idea.

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