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Engaging the Art of War

By Barry Jagoda I January 17, 2006

Dean Peter Cowhey views the Vietnamese political painting unveiled at Jan 11 event celebrating long-term display of of the work in the IR/PS Library. Photo by Paula Cichocka

When the anonymous donor offered a long-term loan, to UCSD’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, of a masterpiece of North Vietnamese war-depicting art work, Dean Peter Cowhey immediately saw an opportunity for teaching students the importance of art and culture in international conflict. Cowhey also thought the work was a beautiful example of a classic laquerware mural, with striking colors and compelling design. The fact that it was wartime propaganda was also something that could be useful as a learning device.

Thus, in presiding, last Tuesday evening, January 11, at the ceremonial unveiling of the artist Thai Ha’s lacquerware mural, “Ho Chi Minh Trail: A Desire of the Home Front,” now mounted on the wall of the IRPS library, Cowhey said, “This is a strongly partisan view, political art that allows us to live through a moment of history.” Dozens of opening reception guests gathered around to take a close look at the art. It was clear that most were taken by the color and beauty and aesthetics of the design but there was also a good deal of shock at the blatant anti-American, North Vietnamese patriotism depicted.

Close-up view of portion of lacquerware painting, "Ho Chi Minh Trail," illustrating the lifeline from the homefront in North Vietnam to the south during what was termed "The American War."

As UCSD Professors Edward Malesky and Samuel Popkin commented in their remarks at the ceremony, the picture's message is historically ironic because 1990, when the work was created, marked the beginning of the Vietnam's turn away from traditional Communism. The event's other speaker, University Librarian Brian Schottlaender, welcomed the art observing that a university had a responsibility to present the broadest possible range of opinion without reference to personal acceptance of the views expressed.

Artist Than Ha was born in 1925, trained in decorative arts and film production and served as a soldier and military artist in the "American War," during which he made sketches and drawings some of which were later incorporated into works such as the large painting on display at UCSD. Showing the Ho Chi Minh Trail starting in the north and moving far to the southern part of the country, one sees the peasants and fighters of North Vietnam working to support their cause. Near the end of the trail, in the south, the artist has painted B-52 bombers, looking like buzzards, trying to destroy the supply chain which the Trail had become. The work's subtitle, translated as "desire of the home front," probably refers to the artist's view that the patriots from the north used the trails and other infiltration routes to make a "contribution" from the home front.

"Ho Chi Minh Trail: A Desire of the Home Front" is on extended loan and available for viewing in the IRPS Library.

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