Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Artist Quách Văn Phong was born on 15 January 1938 in Vĩnh Long Province. Phong’s mother was a market seller and his father was a professional photographer, introducing Phong to the medium as a young boy. During the resistance against French colonial rule, Phong joined the youth movement as a messenger, delivering messages between resistance camps. His father also engaged in resistance activities by conducting reconnaissance missions to scout out and photograph enemy positions.1
Phong displayed a keen interest and a natural talent for fine art early on in his life, nurtured by his hobby for photography, which was encouraged by his father. Phong maintains that his ‘eye’, however, was more focused on painting. While at secondary school in Trảng Bàng District, Tây Ninh Province, he heard an announcement for the entrance exam to the Gia Đình Fine Arts Practicing School in Saigon. Phong was one of only two children to pass the exam from his school. From 1951 to 1953, Phong studied at the Gia Đình Fine Arts Practicing School under teachers Bùi Kỉnh and Nguyễn Anh.
Quách Văn Phong in Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008
In 1954, after the end of the First Indochina War and the the Geneva Accords, Phong and his family joined the exodus of people allied to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) who moved to North Vietnam from South Vietnam. Thanks to relatives in the Saigonese government, Phong and his family were able to travel by French ship. They settled in Hanoi.
On first arriving in Hanoi, Phong joined the Volunteer Youth (Thanh niên tình nguyện). As part of a drive to rebuild Hanoi after the war, Phong carried soil, broke rocks and helped build the railroad to Lào Cai on the northern border with China. He also helped open a library and carried books to workers at various construction sites. At the same time, Phong also contributed drawings to the Phú Thọ Tea Factory (Xí Nghiệp Chè Phú Thọ) newspaper in what was his first job as an illustrator.2
After two years working for the Volunteer Youth, Phong enrolled in the intermediate course at the Vietnam Fine Arts College from 1956 to 1959, a necessary prerequisite for taking the college’s diploma course. In 1959, after passing the intermediate course, Phong began his diploma in fine art. In 1962, Phong participated in the National Fine Art exhibition, showing great promise – however, he did not complete is studies due to joining the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) at the end of 1962. He would only graduate the Vietnam Fine Arts College in 1972, after returning to North Vietnam and receiving his graduating certificate in 1973.
On joining the PAVN, Phong was immediately sent to a boot camp in Hòa Bình Province for five months.3 Here he received physical training in preparation for his journey to South Vietnam, carrying a 20 kilogram backpack filled with rocks on forced hikes through the mountains.
Between 1963 until 1968, Phong conducted his first tour in South Vietnam, beginning with the
While working for the newspaper, Phong had the opportunity to follow military units throughout Military Zone 6. At the time, resistance forces had very little knowledge of American military bases, airfields and the Strategic hamlet Program. Phong, however, managed to paint these scenes from a distance on his excursions. After exhibiting his paintings, he was regarded to be of great value as an artist by PAVN and National Liberation Front (NLF) leaders.
Phong also joined in regular attacks on American bases in Phước Long Province and Ninh Thuận Province between 1963 and 1968, as both an artist and a soldier. In 1968 he was gravely wounded by helicopter and grenade fire. He was transported to a mobile clinic in a forest covering Phước Long Province and Lâm Đồng Province on the border with Cambodia for treatment, where a doctor sheltered him in his quarters.
After his recovery, Phong made a second tour of duty in South Vietnam, from 1970 to 1973, in Military Zone 6 and Military Zone 10. Between 1970 and 1971, Phong combatted in Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia, during America’s Cambodian Campaign. While there, he created a bureau to train the peasant population in self-sufficiency. He taught them how to store rice for the off-season, the economics of buying and selling produce and even the need to hide from bombers when they flew overhead.
In 1973, Phong had moved back to Hanoi and joined the Southern Creativity Camp (Trại sáng tác miền Nam). The camp was used by a number of war artists, including Võ Xưởng. The works he created there were later exhibited in Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
In 1975, after liberation, Phong founded the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association. At the end of the Second Indochina War, many of the local artists and artisans based in Ho Chi Minh City returned to their homes. As founder and director of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association, Phong dedicated his time to gathering artists for the Association from three sources: artists that lived in Saigon, artists who were from the North and artists who lived in the countryside before the war. Many artisans who worked in bronze foundries (đúc đồng), stone sculpture (đục đá), lacquer (sơn mài) and pottery (gốm) returned to their homes to farm, and Phong persuaded such artisans to continue their artistic careers.
Phong and the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association also gathered all the best architects in South Vietnam to take part in projects such as building the Victory (Chiến thắng) Statue. Out of 40 submissions for the design of the statue, including one from the well-known architect Trần Đình Quyền, first prize went to Mai Chửng, a captain of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). However, due to his affiliation to the southern government, Mai Chửng was never given the award and the project was canceled. Regardless, Phong continued to manage projects for other gardens and statues in and around Ho Chi Minh City, including the Prime Minister (Thủ Ô Quân) statue in Mỹ Tho, Tiền Giang Province, the first stone statute in Vietnam made by Southern artists and sculptors.
Phong worked tirelessly in the pursuit of raising awareness for Vietnamese art. In 1978 he and the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association organised an exhibition, at what would become the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum, that was covered by international news outlets including the BBC. This and other similar events drew particular interest from overseas Vietnamese who began investing in artists throughout the country.
From 1987 until 1994, Phong took part in numerous exhibitions in Vietnam and abroad, as well as attending various seminars on art in West Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. He continued to manage the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association and joined the board of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association.
Quách Văn Phong lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
1987 – Participated in an exhibition of artists of socialist countries
1992 – The war looked at from both sides, America
1992 – Exhibitions in the Czech republic and France
1994 – Participated in an art exhibition celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Asia Modern Art Friendship Association, Japan
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Interview with Quách Văn Phong at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 20 and 26 May 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Quách Văn Phong at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 21 November 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- This was in the same location as where artist Bùi Quang Ánh started work after being expelled from the Hanoi Fine Arts College. Although Quách Văn Phong knows Bùi Quang Ánh through the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association, they did not meet in Hòa Bình Province due to being there at different times.