May-June 1970: Phan Kế An Sketches in the Tây Bắc

During the months of May and June, veteran artist Phan Kế An travelled to the northwestern region of North Vietnam to work among the Xá ethnic group. The Xá (a denomination of the Khẳng ethnic minority) live in the Điện Biên Province of north-west Vietnam, known along with other provinces such as Lai Châu, Sơn La, and Hòa Bình Lào Cai and Yên Bái as the Tây Bắc region, an area captured in detail by Nguyễn Thanh Minh during his assignments there in between 1962 and 1965.

Figure 1: Phan Kế An, May 1970. Ink on machine-made paper.

Without her headdress, the woman depicted (fig. 1) can be seen as a member of the Xá ethnicity in a number of ways: her hair is prepared in a voluptuous bun, a customary practice in order to wear their ornate headgear; her simple long-sleeved blouse defined by a row of embroidered buttons down the middle; the sarong tied around her waist. As was customary at the time, she can be seen holding a rifle slung across her shoulder embodying the ideal female guerrilla soldier.

Figure 2: Phan Kế An, 5 June 1970, Cò Đứa Village, “Đồng chí Quàng Văn Nhọn dân quân người Xá (Comrade Quang Van Nhon militiaman of Xa ethnic group).” Graphite pencil on machine-made paper.

In another sketch, with more details of the model recorded, An depicts “Comrade Quàng Văn Nhọn” from the same tribe carrying a sub-machine gun, described as coming from Cò Đứa village in the centre of the Tây Bắc region (fig. 2).

Figure 3: Phan Kế An, 7 June 1970. Ink on machine-made paper.

As shown in another sketch (fig. 3), the ethnic tribespeople loyal to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in the Tây Bắc were of simple origins but hardy and resourceful. Wearing only simple clothing, sandals and what appears to be a homemade rifle sling, the subjects implied knowledge of the surrounding terrain, as well as his ability to cross it easily, made ethnic minorities invaluable to the resistance effort during First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War.

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