Vietnam's Lost War Artist ; in 1954, Pham Thanh Tam Kept a Diary of Life on the Front in the War for Independence. It Was Then Hidden Away until a Chance Meeting 50 Years Later. Sherry Buchanan Recalls How She Stumbled upon an Extraordinary Secret History
Buchanan, Sherry, The Independent (London, England)
Down one of Ho Chi Minh City's narrow alleys, in a white house protected from the blistering sun and monsoon rain, the war artist and journalist Pham Thanh Tam lives with his wife Lanh and his youngest daughter Ly. We first met to photograph Tam's war drawings for the archive of Vietnamese war drawings being prepared with the assistance of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum and the Blue Space Contemporary Art Gallery.
That evening, after a sumptuous meal cooked by his wife, Tam brought out his war memorabilia: his medals; his iron helmet, full of holes " 'not bullet holes, I used it as a watering can,' he explained; his People's Army uniform; his Waterman pen; his paints; his palette knife; his ink bottle and the 12mm cartridge shell he kept it in. 'I have been trying to get him to get rid of all these old things for years,' said Lanh. She laughed, knowing she never stood a chance.
Tam then dragged a heavy iron chest from out under a bed in the living room. The chest was his treasure trove and contained hundreds of the illustrations he created of the Vietnam War: pencil sketches, Chinese ink drawings, watercolours on paper and a few small oil paintings on board. 'These are my true memories. They are my soul,' he said.
That first evening with Ong Tam and Ba Lanh led to many more. The house offered warmth, hospitality and friendship, a place to look at drawings and remember the past. Night after night, Tam went through the drawings he had done over the 10 years of the Vietnam War, following the troops fighting the Americans. A remarkable visual chronicle of the 10-year conflict emerged, starting with the American bombings of the Hanoi streets in 1965, down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to the battle of Khe San, the Tet Offensive and the end of the war in 1975.
One monsoon night, the streets were flooded after heavy rain and I stayed longer than usual. Even the intrepid moped driver from next door couldn't drive through the waters. We were looking at a new batch of war drawings when one of the pencil sketches caught my eye. The yellow paper showed greater age, the sketch seemed more classical and rigorous than his later drawings: the soldier was wielding a bayonet not used in the American Vietnam War. The drawing was dated 1954. 'This one is from the war against the French,' said Tam as he went on through his later drawings.
During my research, I had not come across any drawings from the Franco- Vietnam War (1946-54), let alone the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu in which the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954. I had asked several artists whether they had any works from the period, but they all replied that they had been lost or sold.
It had not occurred to me that Tam could be old enough to have served against the French. This chain-smoking combatant who had covered 600 miles during the American war, mostly on foot, had the energy and gait of a man much younger than his 70 years. An open smile and the twinkle in his eyes expressed a love of life that had sustained him during those terrible years.
'I was 15 when I joined the resistance against the French,' Tam volunteered. …