Back to Vietnam: US veteran finds peace in art

By Quynh Trang   December 16, 2016 | 01:19 am PT
Harry Tabak healed old wounds and banished ghosts of the past during his residency near Hanoi.

Harry Tabak and his bamboo artwork at Heritage Space. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang.

Harry Chaim Tabak says he was a naïve art school student when the U.S. military drafted him and sent him to Vietnam in 1968.

As a communications specialist during the Tet Offensive, Tabak saw heavy fighting from Pleiku to Hue. He returned to his home in New York and began a career as an artist haunted by his experience.

“I always thought Americans didn’t have the right to be in Vietnam,” Tabak said. “I have never forgiven myself.”

But, at 70, Tabak spent three-weeks as an artist in residency at Muong Studio, an open art center 80km west of Hanoi.

“I haven’t been so happy in so many years,” he told VnExpress International.

Last Saturday, Tabak unveiled his “Sculpture. Image. Dance” interactive exhibition at Heritage Space in Hanoi.

Dancers from the Kinergie studios and Vietnamese composer Vu Nhat Tan coordinated on impromptu performances for the opening.


One of Tabak's bamboo installations. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang.

At the center of it all were six installations of bamboo tubes Tabak wove by hand during his time here, results of his art exchange program sponsored by the Indochina Arts Partnership.

Tabak, who typically sculpts using vines, said he's always wanted to work with bamboo, which plays a major role in Vietnamese culture and construction.

Escapism crawled into Tabak’s artwork as a way to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he admitted to have suffered for a short time after the war.

“I suppressed my negative emotions by meditating and getting lost in art,” he said. “I feel lucky to be an artist.”

After returning home in 1969, Tabak held prolific exhibitions and demonstrations to raise awareness among U.S. veterans hiding feelings of shame and struggling with PTSD.

Expatriate U.S. veterans mingled with young Vietnamese in last Saturday's crowd.

Colorful light projections played over Tabak's bamboo installations while dancers moved to soft experimental music played on traditional Vietnamese instruments.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at what Tabak has achieved,” said Chuck Searcy, a representative of Veterans for Peace in Vietnam. “This is beautiful.”

For years, Searcy has led tours for veterans like Tabak as part of his organization.

“There are less and less people coming back to Vietnam,” he said. “We are getting old.”

Before the exhibition, Tabak spoke hopefully about bringing the exhibition to New York and of constructing giant bamboo baskets on his next trip to to Vietnam.

“I hate to leave,” said Tabak as he wiped away tears.” "It has been an amazing healing experience.”

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