In 1963, Nguyễn Thanh Minh continued his assignment with a drawing cadre for 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.
Spring, a time of year representative in most cultures of beauty and rebirth, was an important time for morale in North Vietnam. Minh captured this in a scene of beauty and purity reflective of relative peace and security (fig. 1). Judging by the yellow blouse, black dress and patterned headdress of the woman standing on the left, these three women come from the Tay minority based in the northern and northeastern provinces of Cao Bằng, Lạng Sơn, Bắc Kạn, Quảng Ninh, Hà Giang, and in smaller numbers in Yên Bái and Lào Cai.
Judging by the similar dress another painting also represented members of the Tay minority (fig. 2). However, based on the terraced rice paddies, we may assume that these sketches were made in the northern provinces of Hà Giang, Yên Bái or Lào Cai, regions typified by terraced rice paddies.
Minh also included women from both Tay (front) and Hmông (rear) ethnicities (fig. 3). The H’Mông are distinguished by their large metal necklaces, more often made from chain links than metal bands, and their colourful dresses. As well as conveying a message of unity by including more than one minority in the same sketch, the written message clearly demands food (in the form of rice) to aid resistance forces: “Selling the State excess of rice is every civilian’s responsibility.”
Less concentrated on ethnicity, Minh’s sketches also implied the importance of money was as well as food for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government (fig. 4). In order to build surplus funds in North Vietnam, the population were persuaded to open savings accounts whenever possible. Deposited money fuelled the northern economy, allowing the government to build weapon and munition factories, which supplied the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in the north as well as the majority National Liberation Front (NLF) and People’s Liberation Armed Forces of Vietnam (PLAF) resistance in the south. The ability to buy tractors and buffaloes were necessities for maintaining food production. However, most of the food produced went to government ministries in Hanoi or the PAVN, leaving many in the countryside close to starvation.
Minh also relied on the typical propaganda messages used by the DRV across the country (fig 5). As with other examples, the models in Minh’s sketch are shoeless; only in one example (fig. 4) is there evidence of simple thong sandals. In general, this drew on the same communist-inspired resilience used against French forces at the beginning of the 1950s, where the Việt Minh were famous for unbelievable feats of transport without wearing any shoes. Austerity was a symbol of national pride and not seen as desperation.
Also, it is important to note the concentration on women. Artists like Minh used models in different locations that represented strength, national pride and that set good examples to those allied with the DRV resistance cause. More often than not, women reflected these quotients best because of their hard work in the fields, seen as the source of food in North Vietnam as well as their ability to take up arms and fight guerrilla warfare against male-dominated American forces.
Without exception, these sketches are no bigger than postcards in Minh’s original sketchbook. Working in such tight confines, the detail, complexity and beautiful handwriting so perfectly drawn were skills that initially made Minh stand out as a talented artist when a teenager at military school.
In 1965, Minh finally met the requirements to enrol in the Vietnam Fine Arts College, where he joined the lacquer department and was taught by Hoàng Tích Chù. Minh chose lacquer due to the long lacquer-making tradition that existed in his home province, Bình Dương. Due to the cost and scarcity of materials (such as gold and silver leaf, and lacquer itself), there were only a handful of students who studied lacquer. Materials were so scarce that, for oil painting, students used the fabric from Cuban sugar sacks as their canvases; some were already painted on one side by other students. Despite American military intervention escalating in 1965 with bombing operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder over North Vietnam, Minh’s education was uninterrupted. However, the war played a large part in the inspiration behind the work he produced.