After his graduation from the Vietnam Fine Arts College in 1962, Nguyễn Thanh Minh was assigned as a drawing cadre to the Cultural Department in Tây Bắc. He spent much of his time among the diverse ethnic groups of the northern mountainous region of the northwest. This government-sanctioned work took him through the provinces of Lai Châu, Nghĩa Lộ and Sơn La. He usually travelled 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. While there, he replicated his sketches on wooden boards, using sticky paste and colours as billboards to be displayed on the streets. He also 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. As a government assignment, this work was directed towards propaganda, but nevertheless reveals fascinating facts about life in the northwest.
Minh portrayed how ethnic minority groups in the northwest banded together as militias in support of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The slogan of the North at that time was “both produce and battle”. Therefore, all young men and women of agricultural cooperatives and factories had self-defence squads that were armed with rifles. Farmers carried rifles while they were working in the fields. These women (fig. 1) are members of a cooperative.
From the inscription left by Minh on the painting, we can see that the two women are from the Mường ethnic minority in Nghĩa Lộ Province. However, other details point to the same fact: the stark black dresses punctuated by colourful belts and flat headdresses.
In 1965, Minh finally met the requirements to enrol in the diploma course of the Vietnam Fine Arts College. While at the college, he joined the lacquer department and was taught by Hoàng Tích Chù. Due to the cost and scarcity of materials, there were only a handful of students studying lacquer. Minh chose lacquer due to the long lacquer-making tradition that existed in his home province, Bình Dương. 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.