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Vietnam in the eyes of a Cuban artist — a present retrospective

By Bao Yen   May 30, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7

René Mederos' Vietnam posters are being showcased for the first time with modern-day responses from five contemporary Vietnamese artists. 

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Left: René Mederos, Vietnam Shall Win (1971), Paper. Right: René Mederos, Ho Chi Minh (1969), Paper.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study Of Poltical Graphics. 

In 1969, Cuban artist Felix René Mederos Pazos arrived for the first time in war-torn Vietnam on assignment from the Cuban government’s Department of Revolutionary Orientations. His task was to depict what he witnessed in Vietnam at the time, from the North to South, from the frontline to the countryside. 

During this period, René Mederos marched with Vietnamese soldiers and civilians along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, oftentimes known by Vietnamese as the Truong Son Trail, which was engineered to supply food, manpower and ammunition during the war. 

René returned to Vietnam again in 1972, and the outcomes of these two journeys to Vietnam were 36 silkscreens of various sizes and subjects, be it images of soldiers and farmers working together in the green fields under the red flag, female Vietnamese soldiers having a meal during break, Northern Vietnamese soldiers painting and singing during recreational time, a little boy sitting on an ox, or Uncle Ho sitting by the river reading books. 

Mederos’ silkscreens laud the solidarity between Vietnam and Cuba, and have for the past decades been exhibited in museums across the world. Thanks to the effort of his grandson Marcelo Brociner, who wished to bring his grandfather’s works back to Vietnam, René Mederos’ Vietnam posters are now on display for the Vietnamese public to enjoy for the first time since their creation. 

Claire Driscoll, creative director of Hanoi art space Work Room Four, curated a collection of 18 works from Mederos’ journeys to Vietnam and invited five Vietnamese contemporary artists to produce modern-day responses to René’s posters. 

For the five Vietnamese artists, the use of color in René's works was ultimately the first attraction. "I see a huge influence of pop-art in René's posters. As a graphic designer, I'm used to seeing propaganda posters, but René's works struck me straight away because they are really different," said Pham Khac Quang, one of the five Vietnamese artists chosen to interact with René's works. 

"René communicates through animated colors, and indeed it explains why the posters are so visually inviting. When you look at the posters, you see that they are not just propaganda; they also depict scenes of everyday life in Vietnam at the time," Quang added. 

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Left: René Mederos, Women Farming (1969), Paper. Right: René Mederos, Resting Soldiers (1971), Paper.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study Of Poltical Graphics. 

The application of such vibrant colors to depict scenes in the war zones did not escape scrutiny from critics, but for the Vietnamese artists, it is artistically intentional and reflects a state of realism.

"The cheerful colors stand for conviction that [Vietnam] will win the war," said Nguyen The Son. "At the same time, if you look at René's works carefully, you'll see a keen sense of observation from the smallest details. You can feel that his love for Vietnam and its people is there, on his posters. For me that's the boldest political statement." 

What distinguishes Rene's posters from other propaganda works is not only the visual and artistic emphasis, but also the subject matter. "There is a lot of humanity in Rene's works," said Giang Nguyen. "Human against adversity: that was his main theme. I particularly like the Vietnam Shall Win poster, in which he depicts Ho Chi Minh taking an ordinary moment reading by the river." 

Prior to the project, none of the five Vietnamese artists – Le Quy Tong, Nguyen The Son, Nguyen Nghia Cuong, Nguyen The Son and Pham Khac Quang – had seen René's works before, putting the posters in a new light and open to new ways of interpretation in a present day context. 

The compelling storytelling, vibrant colors and complexity of techniques in Rene’s works triggered various reflections from the five Vietnamese artists. 

Pham Khac Quang, for example, applied woodcut printing techniques to depict the frontline in response to Rene's Women Farming and Soldiers Shooting.

"My work was inspired by the stamping process," said Quang. "In these prints, I depict a scene which is opposite to Rene's work. The women who were in the rear – farming in the field – come to the frontline. The repetition of the process builds up a visual experience." 

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Pham Khac Quang, The Frontline (2017). Woodcut prints on canvas. Courtesy of Work Room Four. 

Nguyen Nghia Cuong decided to paint propaganda imagery on newspapers.

"I think Vietnamese propaganda is slowly fading away. After so many years, it is still using the same formula," he said. "It's too rigid, too serious. I want to create something that is without rules, just to see how it'll turn out." 

Cuong is from the first generation of Vietnamese contemporary artists that followed the Doi Moi (Renewal) period, whose artistic signature is the use of bright colors and naive sketches to portray complex socio-political matters and interactions between one another in a humorous and satirical way. 

"I have never painted propaganda before so this is an interesting experience for me," he said. 

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Left: Nguyen Nghia Cuong, Determination Higher than the Mountain (2015), Powder paint on newspaper. Right: Nguyen Nghia Cuong, To Protect the Priceless Sea (2016), Powder paint on newspaper. Courtesy of Work Room Four. 

Inspired by René's Red Bridge, Nguyen The Son––an artist who uses silk painting and photography as a lens to look into various social issues from the past to the present––was struck by the color red in René's painting. 

"What drew me to the painting was the color red," said Son. "There is also an interaction between the red and the yellow, which is quite symbolic, so I installed a recording of "Con Duong Xua Em Di", a yellow song which was once banned."

During the war, Vietnamese music was categorized as red or yellow music. The former includes Communist revolutionary songs that advocate patriotism, independence and anti-colonialism, while the latter consists mainly of love songs with a slow tempo. 

"Art is about continuation," said Son. "In my other works [exhibited here] for instance, I use photography to depict farmers. Like soldiers, the farmers fight but on a different front. In the modern world, it is the open market, the urbanization of rural areas, the rise of villas on agricultural land."

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Left: Nguyen The Son, Red Days (2017), Silk painting. Courtesy of Work Room Four. Right: Rene Mederos (1969), Paper. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. 

Le Quy Tong, on the other hand, was called upon for his global political views and distinctive use of color, form and identity. He is known to use various materials for his works, and for this exhibition he uses copper and acrylic on canvas. 

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Le Quy Tong, Vietnam shall win (2017), Copper. Courtesy of Work Room Four. 

Among the five artists, Giang Nguyen is the youngest. He is a graphic designer and is well-known for his typeface and pattern designs.

"When I designed the poster, I was thinking how René would see the modern-day Hanoi," he said. 

Using Mederos' human forms, he created a new typeface and to produce digital posters that draw inspiration from Hanoian propaganda. 

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Giang Nguyen, Letters from the battlefront (2017), Silkscreen prints. Red letter reads "Promoting rights"; blue letter reads "Responsibilities of each agency, organization and individual." Courtesy of Work Room Four. 

"If you look at Russian and Chinese propaganda posters, there is always an emphasis on the sense of justice in such a philosophical way," said Giang. "But if you look at René's posters, you rarely see that element. For René, it's all about celebrating humans." 

The exhibition is open at Work Room Four until June 12.