In a way, I relate to this as well. For the first part of my life, Vietnam was a country I would often hear about but did not visit — until I was almost 30 and finally made my way there for the first time. But Vietnam wasn’t a myth so much as the place where my family’s story began.
Given the turbulent events that eventually led us to a new life in Sydney, I began my research into these artworks with some discomfort. After all, Brand and Fox were active members of the Communist Party of Australia, and moved to Hanoi to support the newly formed government of North Vietnam under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh. My parents, on the other hand, were born and raised in South Vietnam, and became staunch anti-Communists. But where possible I strive to overcome such stark ideological divides, guided by my own sense of curiosity and a desire for connection, which often leads to unexpected rewards.
For one thing, stumbling across these miraculously preserved works has allowed me to reach back into Vietnamese history in a way I hadn’t known was possible here in Sydney. Also, the more I read of Brand and Fox’s writing, the greater the sense of kinship I’ve felt. It’s clear they were sincere anti-war intellectuals who took great delight in learning about Vietnamese culture and history beyond the topical concerns of colonialism and war. Without much by way of Vietnamese language, their interactions and observations are impressive. Being activists for Aboriginal rights in Australia, it’s not surprising that they were both keenly interested in Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities; in the collection are several beautiful sketches of Hmong women.
Brand and Fox did not venture below the 17th parallel that separated North and South Vietnam during their time in Hanoi, and they viewed the regime of South Vietnam with immense skepticism. Yet, even though they ostensibly supported ‘the other side’, it is inspiring to read how intrepid they were, going off to live in Vietnam at a time when few Australians knew anything at all about the country.
Many works in the collection are by contemporary artists. Some had been trained in Western art traditions and had begun contributing to a modern style of Vietnamese art. But what I’ve found most fascinating are the examples of folk art. These popular artworks were produced — and continue to be produced — by artisans from Hanoi and surrounding villages. One set of woodcut paintings depicting tigers came from the Hàng Trô'ng and Hàng Nón streets of Old Hanoi, where Brand and Fox would have often walked.
There are also several examples of Đông Hồ folk woodcut painting, produced by a village in Bắc Ninh province, not far from Hanoi. These charming illustrations feature chickens, pigs, frogs, fish and other animals, all symbols of good wishes such as abundance, prosperity and honour. Many of these posters would have been used as decorations to celebrate the arrival of Tết, as the lunar new year was — and still is — the most important event on the Vietnamese calendar.
The colours in Vietnamese folk art were traditionally derived from natural sources, and the origins of the pigments described in Vietnamese Folk Paintings (2012) read like poetry:
The black was produced from bead-tree charcoal or ash from burnt bamboo leaves or straw. Verdigris was used for the blue. Red or yellow colours were created from Flamboyant or Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia) tree. A deep red colour was sourced from powdered red stone.
Looking at the collection, I’m reminded of how much Vietnam is a part of the Sinosphere, which is hardly surprising given the thousand years of Chinese colonisation. Among the mythological, religious and historical stories depicted in the artworks are great figures from Chinese history such as Trương Phi (Zhang Fei/張飛) and Triệu Tử Long (Zhao Yun/趙雲). My father would refer to these legendary military generals from the second and third centuries.