Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Võ Xưởng was born on 8 December 1942 in Hải Dương, a province to the east of Hanoi. While not a full-time artist, Xưởng’s father painted funeral portraits on a commission basis. Xưởng admired his father’s skill and it was the earliest memory of him being inspired by art. As a child, Xưởng also collected comic books, which he imitated in an effort to improve his drawing. From then on, Xưởng sketched and drew throughout his life, both as a hobby and as a commissioned artist. Because of his gift for painting and drawing, government institutions and private individuals used his talent as an artist, which kept him employed throughout his life. However, Xưởng did not receive any formal artistic training until after Liberation in 1975.1
“I did not have any formal training until 1975… I painted according to my instinct.”
Interview with Võ Xưởng in Ho Chi Minh City by Witness Collection on 28 July 2018
Xưởng started working as an electrician for the newspaper Liberation (Giải Phóng) early on in his life until he joined the army in 1964. He enlisted as a normal soldier assigned to 312 Division, which was later renamed Division 7.
From February 1966 to October 1966, Xưởng travelled to South Vietnam (đi B). He travelled by train from Hanoi to Quảng Bình Province and, from there, he walked at marching speed (hành quân thần tốc) down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to Phước Long Province and an area that he described as “the sacred forest of poisonous water (rừng thiêng nước độc)” in Military Zone 6. While there, he submitted drawings to the military zone’s newspaper (Báo quân khu).
Xưởng was involved in the Tết Offensive in 1968. Although the majority of the fighting during the Tết Offensive occurred in and around Saigon, he and his unit were based in Bình Thuận, a coastal province to the east of Saigon. However, Xưởng travelled extensively with his unit on foot between the southeastern provinces of Bình Dương, Tây Ninh and Đồng Nai in coordinated attacks against US forces. At this time, Xưởng could not paint due to the violence of the conflicts he experienced.
From 1972 to 1974, Xưởng and his unit were sent to fight in the Nguyễn Huệ Campaign, using Route 13 as a direction of attack along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, travelling from the south as far as the 17th Parallel. During this time, Xưởng’s military duties included organising the logistical transport of weapons and wounded soldiers to and from battlefronts. It was then, however, that he found time to paint during his free time, not as a commissioned artist but for himself. In order to do this, due to the lack of materials, Xưởng improvised in a number of ways to collect materials to paint and sketch. Sometimes, after being selected to decorate various meeting halls and conferences for the army, he was supplied paper, colours and pens. Although, when these resources were not available, Xưởng mixed medicines with water to make colours: he used iodine for red, crushed malaria tablets for yellow and ink for blue. In these austere times, he collected what available unmarked paper there was that littered various battlefields to paint on. Like many other artists who only had backpacks to store their works in, Xưởng lost many of the pieces he made during this time.2
From the end of 1972 to the beginning of 1973, Xưởng joined an undisclosed forest creative camp as a member of the Political Department. There, he met and befriended Ngô Viễn Chí. Soldiers who displayed a talent for drawing or who had studied intermediate fine arts were selected to join creative camps to create art and share experiences. The camp Xưởng joined was opened by Huỳnh Phương Đông. There were approximately 40-50 people living in the camp and two artists shared one shelter.
Xưởng also submitted various drawings to military magazines. His painting The North (Phía Bắc) was printed by Military Arts and Literature (Văn Nghệ Quân Đội) in 1972. When he sent the original paintings to North Vietnam, they were lost after publication. From 1973, Xưởng sent his sketches to, and kept them at, the Political Department (Cục Chính Trị) in South Vietnam where he worked.
In 1974, after being promoted to Lieutenant, Xưởng was posted to the eastern office of the Cultural and Political Department of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, until liberation in 1975.3 Here, Xưởng was in charge of cultural activities in the region, sometimes teaching those who supported the resistance
After April 1975, when the country was reunited, many artists moved to Ho Chi Minh City from the north. They brought new art materials like gouache as well as a renewed concentration on the arts. It was during this time Xưởng was sent to enrol in the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University by the army, an experience he thoroughly enjoyed despite the hard work; Xưởng returned to the eastern office of the Cultural and Political Department of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam to work for the army during summer vacations. Some of his teachers at university included Hoàng Tâm, Huỳnh Phương Đông and Phước Sanh. Xưởng humbly admitted that his teachers told him he did not need to complete a full course because of his pre-existing skills, but Xưởng insisted on taking the course until the end.
In 1979, Xưởng began a prolific career creating government-commissioned propaganda pieces for the Department of Culture, which he continued until 2000. He graduated the Hồ Chí Minh Fine Arts University in 1982 after completing a full six-year course.
After his graduation, Xưởng remained in the army with Diviosn 7 until 1990. He worked as Head of the Department of Politics of the Cultural House of the Military Zone. He played an administrative role and managed film activities, cultural training activities and art movements. He retired from the army in 1990 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Unbelievably, Xưởng has never held a solo exhibition despite being included in numerous group exhibitions around Vietnam.
Võ Xưởng lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
VỠ XƯƠNG GALLERY
Artists in The Revolution (Kỷ Yếu các tác giả chiến tranh Cách mạng)
Military Art and Literature Magazine (Văn Nghệ Quân Đội)
Military Museum, Hanoi
Cần Thơ Museum, Cần Thơ Province, Mekong Delta
Military Zone 4 Museum, Bình Dương Province
Hồ Chí Minh City Fine Arts Museum
Tây Ninh Museum (based on the Central Office of the Southern Liberation Bureau)
1978 – Present: Member of Hồ Chí Minh Fine Art Association
Served with Regiment 165, Division 312
Served with Division 7, Liberation Armed Force of South Vietnam
Worked for the Department of Politics, Liberation Armed Force of South Vietnam
Prize A of propaganda Paintings – Saigon 300 years
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Interview with Võ Xưởng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 28 July 2018, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Võ Xưởng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 22 November 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- The location of which is still a military secret.