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Quach Phong’s Monumental Take on Vietnamese History

An ambitious and essential art project, Sketching Vietnamese History – the first major solo exhibition by established artist Quach Phong – is a tribute to Vietnam’s history and its people. It is a work in progress but Phong’s first installment, which is set to become a five-kilometer-long lacquer painting, is a remarkable and passionate piece of art not to be missed.

Last Saturday, people flocked to the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum as painter and former combat artist Quach Phong unveiled his latest work. You could tell it was a special occasion just by the people walking through the historic building’s door; this is not the crowd one would normally see at an exhibition opening. People from different nationalities and ages were in attendance, not to mention artists and a rotating cast of Saigon’s broadcast media.

Saigoneer, too, sat down with Phong to talk about the two 50-meter gouache sketches and lacquer panels on display.

“This is only half of the project,” explains the 78-year-old artist in Vietnamese. “It goes from the Hong Bang time [2879 BC], back when we were still farmers, until the Le Trung Hung era. The second part, which will happen in the next two years, will start from the Nguyen dynasty and it will cover until today.”

Visitors can view the three sketches in a video, which plays in the room adjacent to the main exhibition hall. Although he used gouache for the sketches – a type of paint originally employed in Italian and French paintings – Phong points out that the landscape is typical of Vietnamese and Asian culture: the perspective is flat and the Chinese-style white clouds are employed to mark the distance from one subject to another.

The lacquer painting on view, the central piece of the show, sees Le Loi’s revolt against the Ming dynasty, the invaders' counter attack and Dinh Le and Nguyen Xi’s elephant troops’ involvement in the revolt.

“Vietnam’s history is plagued with wars but there were also peaceful times,” he says. “I wanted to show the introduction of new products, the creation of new trades in silk and social changes.”

Phong, experienced firsthand his country’s conflict when he followed the Viet Minh to the frontlines as a war-sketch artist. Years later, he is aware of the sensitivity of the subject matter.

 “The subject is history, which can be very sensitive, so I decided to adopt [lacquer painting] to separate it from any contemporary connotations,” Phong explains. “I am not a historian. My artwork is not meant to be a story but more a panorama of Vietnam’s history. It’s not a retelling or a personal interpretation of the past, it is history that is elevated to a cultural level.”

The Vinh Long-born artist has spent a great portion of the last two years studying and researching materials to help him portray Vietnam’s past.

“The research part was not very challenging,” he says. “The hardest part was to come up with the visual images, because before the Le dynasty there were lots of written texts but very little depictions of that period. I referred to Dong Son drums, statues and various depictions from temples as much as I could, but I also had to use my own judgement and inject my own interpretations and imagine what people in those years looked like and what kind of clothes they wore.”

For someone like Phong, who took part in the American War, has participated in numerous national and international group exhibitions and once served as Vice Secretary General of the Vietnam Fine Art Association, undertaking such a laborious endeavour is, to put it simply, a labor of love. Through his artwork, Phong hopes to view Vietnamese history throught a different lens.

“This is a way for Vietnamese to learn about their history, but it is also for foreigners to get a sense of the country,” Phong says. “I want to make this a four- or five-kilometer-long lacquer painting that is kept in a quiet house open to the public. At first, I thought of keeping it in a public space, but then I realized that it is best viewed in a quiet environment.”

As visitors start to fill the museum’s hall, Phong underscored another ambition for the project: training young Vietnamese artists to carry on the tradition.

“It will need around 50 artists and artisans to make this final project and it might take other five years,” he says. “I want to train a group of younger artists to take on the torch because this work takes a lot of energy and I might not be around to see its completion.”

Though it may take some time before we see the second instalment of Phong’s Vietnamese history, the current display suggests it will be worth the wait.

 

Sketching Vietnamese Historyis will be on display until August 2 at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum. Curated by Dinh Q. Le, Zoe Butt, and Nguyen Bich Tra in collaboration with the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association, Sketching Vietnamese History is part of the San Art program Conscious Realities.

9am – 5pm, Tue to Sun

Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum

97 Pho Duc Chinh, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, D1

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