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Vietnamese clash over art in the US (February 21, 2005)

Visiting Vietnamese artists Nguyen Cu Cong, left, Dang Xuan Hoa, center, and Pham Anh Hai stand in Post Alley, close to the Billy King Showroom where their work is on exhibit. Some Vietnamese community leaders yesterday announced they would protest the show.
In many Vietnamese-American communities, touring pop singers and artists from Vietnam often face protests because of their country's communist regime. But a University of Washington professor thought Seattle would be an exception when he brought three artists from Hanoi last week to showcase their work.

Instead, some Vietnamese community leaders yesterday announced they would protest the "Viet Nam Now" exhibit at the Billy King Showroom, 95 Union St., near Pike Place Market. It opened last Saturday and is scheduled to run through March 14.

Earlier, an Asian social-service agency declined to endorse the show, fearing a backlash from the local refugee community.

And the artists, whose abstract and impressionistic paintings depict life in Vietnam, were glared at and disparaged by diners when they lunched in the Chinatown International District earlier this week.

"If they protest, they protest. What can you do?" said assistant professor Jonathan Warren, who is sponsoring the artists. "But maybe this will prompt a discussion into why there are hard feelings and these political divisions."

For many Vietnamese refugees here, communism remains a highly charged issue, much like the antipathy Miami's Cuban exiles harbor toward Fidel Castro's regime. Their animosity is also fueled by Vietnam's poor human-rights record and restrictions on free speech.

Refugees think the touring artists support communists because the Vietnamese government approved their trip to the United States. The artists say their work is apolitical.

"Some Vietnamese in this country were imprisoned up to 14 years after the fall of Saigon," said Jeffrey Brody, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, and an expert on Vietnamese-American issues. "They are angry at the government that defeated them in battle and that has a stranglehold on the country."

In California, home to the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, shows featuring singers and artists from Hanoi have been protested and boycotted. Refugees who have attended have been called traitors, spit on and even punched.

Similar protests, though without violence, occurred in Olympia in 2002, when students at South Puget Sound Community College hung the flag of Vietnam as part of a larger international display to honor foreign students. Hundreds protested, and the school was barraged with angry e-mails, some equating displaying the communist flag with flying the Confederate battle flag. There are an estimated 50,000 Vietnamese Americans in Washington.

Tuan Vu, a Vietnamese community leader in Olympia, expects refugees, especially war veterans, to protest the Seattle exhibit. However, some refugees fear protests would draw more publicity to the exhibit; others fear protests could become violent.

Trong Tang, of Seattle, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Washington State, a coalition of 24 Vietnamese business, social and community groups, called Vietnam's communist officials hypocrites for encouraging some artists to express their views while imprisoning many religious leaders, writers and other artists who have views with which the government disagrees.

The Seattle exhibit is the brainchild of Warren, director of Latin American Studies at the UW, who became a fan of Vietnamese contemporary art while researching a book in Hanoi in the past two years. He decided to curate the exhibit, with lectures on culture and the arts at Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum.

He said he approached a social-service agency in the Chinatown International District to help him promote the project, even offering to donate some of the proceeds from sales of paintings. But the agency, which he would not name, declined, fearing protesters might firebomb its office. In California, the homes and businesses of people accused of supporting the communist regime have been threatened.

The show features the work of five Hanoi artists, three of whom made the trip to Seattle: expressionists Nguyen Cu Cong and Dang Xuan Hoa and abstractionist Pham Anh Hai.

When they ate at a Vietnamese pho noodle restaurant earlier this week, their presence offended some patrons, who saw them "as having been responsible for their exile and losing their land and property in Vietnam," Warren said. "It was not an engaging or warm embrace. They [the artists] were surprised to encounter such hard feelings."

The artists declined to discuss the incident.

Hoa, one of Hanoi's leading artists, was picketed during a solo exhibition in Boston in 1994. He told those protesters that he had no political agenda and that his art was not government propaganda.

His seven paintings on display in Seattle are self-portraits that reflect his search for the meaning of life, he said in Vietnamese earlier this week. "I am not a politician. I do not work for the government. I am an artist, an abstract painter."

Vietnamese entertainers and artists who tour the United States must first get approval from the Vietnam government. Some refugees think that seal of approval implies the artists must be loyal to the communist regime or have agreed to promote communism through their work.

Among those who hold such sentiments are former soldiers who fought to save South Vietnam from communism or those who were imprisoned and forced to memorize communist doctrine.

"If the artists were not pro-communists, the government would have never allowed them to come to the United States," said Vu, a former soldier.

The 64-year-old Olympia man has persuaded a dozen cities, including Olympia and Puyallup, to either ban the communist flag at international events or to fly the flag of the defunct South Vietnam government instead. He said his ill will comes from having heard that many fellow countrymen were tortured. He refuses to meet the three touring artists.

Warren, of the UW, said protesting the art exhibit would be misguided because the paintings are about the desire for greater autonomy and self-expression — the same goals protesters seek for their homeland.

Reprinted from seattletimes


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