September 1962: Nguyễn Thanh Minh’s Assignment to the Painting Division of the Cultural Department in Tây Bắc

After leaving the Vĩnh Lợi revolutionary base in Bình Dương Province, Nguyễn Thanh Minh travelled to Hanoi by boat. There, Minh attended art classes under Diệp Minh Châu, a lecturer from Vietnam Fine Arts College, to prepare himself for the entrance exams for the diploma course of the Vietnam Fine Art College. However, in order to qualify to take the entrance exam, it was necessary to first obtain a certificate of precollege fine art studies (Trung cấp Mỹ thuật) and gain three years’ work experience. Although already qualified to take the entrance exams to become a teacher, Minh followed Diệp Minh Châu’s advice and sacrificed nearly six years to prepare for what he most loved. In 1959, he enrolled in the intermediate course, graduating in 1962.

After his graduation from the intermediate course towards the end of 1962, Minh was then assigned to a drawing cadre with the Painting Division of the Cultural Department in the northwest, spending much of his time among the diverse ethnic groups of the northern mountainous region of Tây Bắc. This government-sanctioned work took him through the provinces of Lai Châu, Nghĩa Lộ and Sơn La usually travelling by coach but sometimes walking and using pack-horses to reach areas inaccessible by road. After making preliminary sketches on the road, Minh returned to the departmental base in Nghĩa Lộ. As a government assignment, this work was directed towards propaganda, but nevertheless reveals fascinating facts about life in the northwest, an area which Minh represented as a unified autonomous zone (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, 1962, “Hoan nghênh chủ trương thành lập tỉnh trong khu tự trị Tây Bắc của Đảng và Quốc Hội. Khu tự trị Tây Bắc Sơn La; Lai Châu; Nghĩa Lộ (Celebrating The Party and Congress’s policy on establishment of provinces in Tây Bắc (Northwest) autanomous zone. Tây Bắc (Northwest) autanomous zone Sơn La; Lai Châu; Nghĩa Lộ).” Mixed materials.

These drawings are from Minh’s original sketchbooks that he carried with him at all times when out in the field. In it, he recorded his everyday drawings, as well including the pasted-in original images of poster designs and other designs, such as for badges and stage decoration.

While at the departmental base in Nghĩa Lộ, Minh either replicated his sketches on wooden boards using sticky paste and colours as billboards to be displayed on the streets or refined them for mass printing purposes. Often, he reused the wooden boards, washing off one painting to make way for another. Sadly, there is very little record of these early billboard paintings.

Particularly, Minh’s documentation of daily life among minority ethnicities living in the northwest region prove fascinating.

Figure 2: Nguyễn Thanh Minh, 1962, Yến Lộ Province, Tây Bắc, “Tranh cổ động chế biến sắn – phác thảo này đã thể hiện và in để phổ biến trong khu Tây Bắc năm 1962 (Propaganda painting of casava process- this sketch was printed in many copies for propaganda in Tây Bắc (Northwest) Zone in 1962).” Mixed materials.

Minh sketched Thai minority women from Yến Lộ Province preparing cassava for drying (fig. 2). During the season, cassava was a staple and abundant crop. In order to combat wastage, the cassava was dried to preserve it for an extra two months. Minh then adapted this original sketch with more detail for mass printing. It was then distributed throughout the Tây Bắc for propaganda purposes.

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