Early 1971: Bùi Quang Ánh Travels from Savannakhet, Laos, to Yên Bái Province

After spending over two months in Savannakhet, Laos, artist Bùi Quang Ánh travelled north to Yên Bái Province. Before he started his journey, Ánh managed to complete one work that untypically highlighted the devastating effects of the conflict in Vietnam (fig. 1). Rendered in Bản Đông (or East Mountain Village, on the border of Savannakhet in Laos and Quảng Trị Province in Vietnam), Ánh’s sketch shows the corpses of South Vietnamese soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and, most likely, local Laos civilians as a result of the Battle of Bản Đông, part of Operation  Lam Sơn 719.

Figure 1: Bùi Quang Ánh, 1971, Bản Đông (East Mountain Village, on the border of Savannakhet, Laos and Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam), “Bản Đông (At Bản Đông).” Graphite pencil on machine-made paper.

The Battle of Bản Đông the took place in the Xépôn district of Savannakhet Province in southern Laos on the border with Vietnam. The fighting pitted communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops against ARVN and US forces. The confrontation lasted from 8 February to 20 March 1971 and ended in a comprehensive victory for the communist forces. It was seen as a turning point in the Second Indochina War.

It was rare for Vietnamese artists to depict their deceased countrymen and civilians. An unspoken aspect of the Second Indochina War was that it was a civil war, which the Northern leadership was keen to play down by describing it as the ‘American War’. As such, Ánh’s personal representation of the deceased (fig. 1) suggests a considerate documentation of the effects of war rather than for propaganda purposes.

When Ánh reached Yên Bái Province, he captured the mechanics of war (fig. 2). Ánh shows us the details of the weapons factory Z1 used as a submachine gun production facility, run by the General Department of Logistics. In this particular painting, Ánh captures a worker sanding and polishing submachine gun parts.

Figure 2: Bùi Quang Ánh, 1971, Yên Bái Province, “Tất cả cho tiền tuyến (All for the front).” Watercolour on machine-made paper.

Ánh stayed in Yên Bái Province for two months. He combined drawing and painting with classes teaching drawing. He let his students draw propaganda paintings for an exhibition depicting the entrance to the factory (fig. 2). Ánh was duly recognised for his work here and was rewarded with a bicycle for his efforts. However, he decided to accept a camera instead because he already had a bicycle.

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