1956-1959: Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc’s Intimate Paintings of his Re-education Pilgrimage

The period between 1956 and 1959 was one of consolidation and continued conflict for Hồ Chí Minh and the Việt Minh against French colonialism. As the Soviet Union crushed the October Uprisings in Hungry and Poland in 1956, South Vietnam’s newly appointed Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm began a crackdown on Việt Minh suspects and other dissidents in the south. As a result, communist insurgent activity started in earnest in 1957 in South Vietnam, resulting in them establishing a coordinated command structure in the Mekong Delta formed of thirty-seven armed companies.

It was also a period, however, that allowed for the development of a number of art institutions. The Vietnam Fine Arts College reopened in 1956 and the Vietnam Fine Arts Association was established in 1957, both in Hanoi. For Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc this led to a number of postings. From 1955, Ngọc lectured at the Vietnam Fine Arts College and became a member of the Executive Board of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association from 1957. He held the position of deputy secretary general of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association from 1957 to 1958.

Although, despite these notable positions, there is documented evidence that Ngọc acted against the policy of the Communist Party of Vietnam to limit freedom of speech in the mid-late 1950s. For his participation in the journal Nhân Văn, he spent 1956 to 1959 in a re-education camp.[1]

In these intimate, behind-the-scenes images, we can imagine what life was like in the rural political re-education camps: occupied by simple farmers still using rudimentary equipment to work the land (fig. 1). Also, like the Việt Minh, whom Hồ Chí Minh equated with protecting the land-classes more than anything else, they are represented wearing no shoes – a luxury assumed solely for the bourgeoisie.

Figure 1: Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc, 1957, North Vietnam (exact location unknown). Watercolour on Vietnamese hand-made giấy dó paper.

We also learn that even the classrooms were simply constructed and spartan (fig. 2). Students, a mixture of men and women, but possibly separated into gender-specific classes, sat at tables and on seats made from no more than planks of wood. Political commissars acted as their teachers.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc, 1956. Watercolour on hand-made paper (possibly giấy dó).

However, beyond daily life and material comforts, Ngọc’s paintings also imply that reading, studying and learning Hồ Chí Minh’s Lao Động policies was a daily occurrence – if not a necessity. Having a pamphlet at hand in any situation was the norm and it was natural for groups to discuss them happily in their spare time (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc, 1956, North Vietnam (exact location unknown). Watercolour on Vietnamese hand-made giấy dó paper.

After his release from the re-education camp and until his retirement in 1983, Ngọc was an executive on the Arts Committee. Despite his political leaning, Ngọc won the 1951 and 1954 National Fine Arts Exhibitions.


[1] Nora Taylor, Establishment of Indochina Fine Arts College and painting policy in colonial Vietnam, 1925-1945, Nghe Anh Culture Magazine, 22 January 2014.

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