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Rare exhibition that focuses solely on Vietnam War art
FORMER Malaysian ambassador to Singapore N Parameswaran has a collection of Vietnamese art that is one of the largest known collections of posters and drawings on the Vietnam War.
For the three short years that he served as the Malaysian ambassador to Vietnam from 1990 to 1993, Mr Parameswaran bought many posters and paintings by Vietnamese artists. There were no art galleries in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh then, so he would buy them from artists directly when he visited them in their homes.
"Every time I bought works, I'd keep them and it wasn't until I had retired, and was going through all my boxes that I realised that I had accumulated more than 1,000 works," says the affable retired diplomat.
On a roll since his first art acquisition - which was a Tan Choon Ghee watercolour piece on Penang - in 1985, Mr Parameswaran recounts how he was on the lookout for landscape paintings at first. "As I spent more time in Hanoi where I was based, I began to notice their depictions of the war - in posters, books, sculptures and so on. I realised that almost everyone knew someone who had died in the war."
His understanding and perception of the war began to change as well. At the time he was there, Vietnam was finally coming to terms with the war. Everywhere he went outside of Hanoi - Danang, Ho Chi Minh City and other cities - he would visit artists' homes and buy their works.
He has loaned the NUS Museum 1,202 works for three years, and the first exhibition uses about 80 of those works.
Who Wants to Remember a War? is the first known exhibition dedicated to the subject of Vietnam War art and its production, says curator Chang Yueh Siang. "It's also a first of its kind as an exhibition that explores issues of history, commemoration, heritage and memories (with the use of films and documentary excerpts) and how these are variously adopted or set aside in the creation of nation-building narratives," she says.
The propaganda posters are the most arresting in the collection, since they are designed to capture the viewers' attention, Ms Chang notes.
Mr Parameswaran was posted to Vietnam in the middle years of Doi Moi, the period of Vietnamese economic reforms beginning in 1986 aimed at bringing about socialist market liberalisation.
The bulk of the paintings he collected were also produced during the period of the Indochinese and Vietnam Wars (1945-1975) so it includes depictions of Vietnam's cross-border conflicts with Cambodia and China (1976-1986).
Some of his favourite or seminal works include two by Bui Xuan Phai, who died in 1988, including one he did of the famous musician Van Tao, painting him red-cheeked from celebrating the victory over Saigon. He also has three works by Nguyen Tu Nghiem - one in the exhibition depicts a boy on a horse using sugarcane to fight. This exemplifies the belief among Vietnam's veteran artists that the Vietnamese could overcome all enemies, says Mr Parameswaran. The artist passed away in June at the age of 94.
Other well known names include Tran Van Cam and Nguyen Tien Chung. Huy Toan, a former army general, also drew, and he used to keep the drawings he made of Dien Bien Phu under his bed.
Besides the main exhibition of soldiers participating in daily life to less common subjects of war such as women, non-ethnic Vietnamese and prisoners-of-war, there is a second, concurrent exhibition, Lines which sheds light on the French influence on artistic training, and how this shaped the artists' techniques, as well as their expressions of intent, subjects and ideas.
In Lines, the works show how the artists rendered impressively realistic drawings of machines and spaces. This stemmed from the Ecole des Beaux-arts de Indochine tradition, that expresses the importance of drawing as the basis of good design.
Curator Ms Chang notes that the significance of this early training is that many of the artists at the front line were rapidly capturing scenes, like Pham Thanh Tam and Nguyen Bang Lam.
If there's any criticism that Mr Parameswaran has received on his collection, it is that it reflects the Northern point of view. "I didn't really pay attention to the North-South divide as I was mostly based in Hanoi, the north. So I've to give this disclaimer that my collection isn't intended to be political or to offend," he clarifies.
- Who Wants to Remember a War? War Drawings and Posters from the Ambassador Dato' N Parameswaran Collection is showing at the Ng Eng Teng Gallery, NUS Museum, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent National University of Singapore, until January 2017. Another concurrent exhibition is Double Vision, at the Lee Kong Chian Gallery, comprising video works and artist films inspired by the affinities between the Philippines and Vietnam during American warfare in the Pacific, which runs until Nov 5.