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HO CHI MINH CITY — At times the downtown here can appear as one great, big construction site — gleaming Chanel storefronts arise around the corner from propaganda posters, which are both hung up by the government in earnest and marketed to tourists as trinkets. New glass skyscrapers can only momentarily distract from the history, politics, and culture that permeate this place.
At the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, which is housed in a beautiful, old French Colonial building, war paintings hang in the halls celebrating Vietnam’s military might and the defeat of the imperialists; meanwhile, The One, a complex of several skyscrapers, is being built next door, set to overshadow the entire museum. Such are the confusing realities of a rapidly developing socialist country in the 21st century. Seriously investigating the history of Vietnam is vital to understanding how this all came to be, and the museum’s current exhibition seeks to do just that.
Vietnamese artist Quach Phong’s show Sketching Vietnamese History is a monumental reinvestigation of the country’s history. The centerpieces of the show are two paper scrolls, each nearly 50 meters (~164 feet) long. Taking two years to complete, the scrolls tell Vietnamese history from the Hùng kings in the 3rd century BCE to the Le Trung Hung period that began in the 1500s. Also included are 12 traditional lacquer panels, a long interview with the artist detailing his process and motivations, and a video slowly panning the entire length of the scrolls. This is just the beginning, too: the artist dreams of continuing his research and paintings to eventually tell the entire history of Vietnam.
Quach Phong was born in 1938 in Vinh Long, Vietnam. He studied art at Gia Dinh Fine Arts School and the Vietnam College of Fine Arts. In 1966, Quach became an illustrator and writer for a Northern Vietnamese newspaper, capturing battles with his brush until he was wounded in 1973. After the American War, Quach became an early arts administrator with the Southern Vietnamese government and worked to grow arts networks nationwide. He helped establish and served as a general secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association, which supported this exhibition along with the nonprofit Sàn Art.
With so many stories combined into just two scrolls, Quach has tried to ease the reading by separating figures and events with ethereal clouds of yellow, green, and blue. While the coloring feels contemporary, the format and style of painting create a sense that the works are artifacts themselves. The pieces recall didactic temple paintings, which, although they’re less common in Vietnam than the rest of Southeast Asia, are often used to illustrate an important historical event or story, like the Jatakas telling the lives of Buddha. In Quach’s work, however, any moralizing aspects are removed.
The artist points out in his statement that politicians and governments have a tendency to rewrite or adjust the telling of historical events to better serve their party’s purposes. While Quach himself has painted history, especially the war, in a manner that supports the government’s party line, that’s not what he’s doing here. One of the curators of the exhibition, Nguyen Bich Tra (also the general manager of Sàn Art), told me that Quach is not refuting any major readings of Vietnamese history, by either the government or outside researchers. Instead, the artist removes the nationalist rhetoric and framing found in most Vietnamese textbooks covering this history, seeking to present it through as neutral a lens as possible — perhaps the defining difference between propaganda and art. Quach hopes this approach will allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Of course, no telling of history is ever completely neutral. We find in Quach’s paintings many heroic men and the wars they fought. These are standard stories of epics, ignoring the masses with whom these men fought. However, perhaps Quach’s first step of simply recounting history as evenhandedly as possible will open the door for a more nuanced and varied version later on, by other artists or historians. As Quach writes in his artist statement, “No work, however large, can speak about culture and the art in its entirety. It is necessary that more works are made, more forms are created to reflect history. I hope this achieves to present a frame for such an ambitious job.”
The magnitude of Quach’s project is impressive. It recalls the large ink drawings of such groups as Taring Padi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, or the spread-out Beehive Design Collective, although Quach attempts to remove politics while these two collectives place politics front and center. In concept, the work also recalls Pech Song’s project of painting the postcolonial history of Cambodia as he remembers it. A painter all his life, Pech Song had been forced, out of economic necessity, to paint propaganda for the Khmer Rouge and then for the Vietnamese-backed Communist government. His new historical work became a powerful act of redemption.
Quach’s next stage of sketching will likely take another two years, Nguyen told me over email. I do wonder how the artist will continue to walk the line of neutrality as his project moves closer to the present day; producing a “true” history becomes more political with the appearance of more documented narratives to chose from. Hopefully his thorough research, deep commitment to the project, and sincerity will guide him.
Quach Phong’s Sketching Vietnamese History continues at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum (97 Pho Duc Chinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) through August 2.