May 1973: Lê Lam Sketches a Female Guerrilla

Between 1965 and 1974, Lê Lam took the advice of his inspirational teacher Tô Ngọc Vân and joined as an artist in the struggle for the liberation of South Vietnam, making documentary sketches along with other artists Hoàng Việt, Thái Bình, Tấn Lực and Trình Núi, stopping first along Trường Sơn Trail. On his journey, Lam had to carry a heavy load full of artist supplies on top of standard equipment, usually 20 kilograms, but sometimes as much as 35 or 36 kilograms. After five months and two bouts of malaria, Lam finally made it to Tây Ninh Province, albeit considerably weakened.

Lam lived underground close to the Củ Chi tunnel network – a harrowing experience that he recalls with caution. In his estimation, the most important key to survival during that time was to learn which planes were dangerous; if you heard a B52 Bomber, it was too late. The second was to learn the American’s schedule; when they came from Guam they were easy to predict, but when they came from Thailand they were much more irregular. He described how in their shallow tunnel systems, a soldier’s survival rate was around 70-80% if a bomb struck “not too close.”

Lam painted mostly watercolours in the Liberated Zone of the Mekong Delta and estimates that he made close to 5,000 sketches, portraits, landscapes recording daily activities at base camp. He continually hosted exhibitions while on the road, using white and coloured paper and cloth pins to hang his works. Some exhibitions comprised of 60 to 70 paintings, others between 200 and 300 paintings. He concentrated on images that reflected binh vận (military logistics) in order to dissuade enemy troops from fighting. As “the colour green was the colour most destroyed” Lam’s paintings of the time were ashen and grey to reflect the new environment of dirt, bullets, gun smoke and gunpowder. Often, after sketching an idea and committing it to paint, Lam would make a woodcut of the image and teach the surrounding guerrillas and young girls how to do it, therefore enabling images to be printed on an industrial scale. In 1967, his praised work The Spirit of the Bến Tre People was chosen by the Cuban state to print on large grids to broadcast the American war in Vietnam around the world.

As part of the large body of work Lam created in the Liberated Zone of the Mekong Delta, Lam sketched a female guerrilla with ink wash on machine-made paper (fig. 1). Named as  Cúc Hoa – and described as a “woman soldier” – the intimate sketch shows a young woman in a relaxed pose in full-body profile.

Figure 1: Lê Lam, 4 May 1973, Long An Province. “Nữ chiến sĩ Cúc Hoa (Woman soldier Cúc Hoa).” Ink and wash on machine-made paper.

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