Photographer Lee Karen Stow is currently in Vietnam, conducting fieldwork for the continuation of ‘Poppies: Women, War, Peace’. She reports on remembrance and memorialisation of the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam there are memorials, elaborate and intimate, to the estimated three million Vietnamese who died in the Second Indochina War, known as the Vietnam War or ‘American War’ and which lasted from 1954 until 1975.
In Hanoi, in the North of Vietnam, the country’s principle War Memorial was built in 1993 to remember the men and women who sacrificed their lives for the war. Set in a garden of trees and ponds, the lofty modernist structure has open sides cut to the shape of a traditional pagoda and inlaid with gold; the idea of the design is to be in harmony with land, sky and water.
Elsewhere in neighbourhoods, smaller altars exist to remember those locally who died. Ha Thi Mac, a female veteran soldier of Brigade 592 of the Vietnam People’s Army, now in her late 60s, opens an iron gate onto the memorial in Trung Liet Ward in Hanoi’s Dongda District. She lights incense sticks and prays. Above the altar are words which she translates as ‘The Nation Remembers the Sacrifice’.
During my time in Vietnam, documenting the stories and memories of women war veterans and resistance fighters, I came across less obvious memorials, told through the country’s art. A legacy of visually powerful paintings, drawings, and sculpture by artists who bore witness as war unfolded and raged and thousands of peasant farmers, men and women, as well as the country’s youth, were mobilised. In oils, watercolour, lacquer, pencil, wood, bronze and stone, these memorials portray the destruction, suffering, comradeship, effect on families, and jubilation of a country invaded and occupied a thousand years ago by the Chinese, then the French and finally the US, before Saigon fell in 1975 and Vietnam finally found independence.
These works fill the galleries and line the walls of the country’s two fine art museums in Hanoi and in the southern capital Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. In the Ho Chi Minh fine art museum there is a permanent memorial to the war artist, their military survival kit displayed with their easel. Above on the wall a marble tablet is etched with the names of artists and the promise: ‘the country will always remember what they did’.
Equally as powerful, and haunting, is the exhibition of iconic photographs taken by the scores of international and local photojournalists who lost their lives whilst trying to capture the Vietnam War. Originally a book entitled ‘Requiem’ published in 1997, the photographs and the stories of the photographers who took them became a touring memorial photograph exhibition and now occupies a floor of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh.
A lectern on which a book of names of all those killed or missing, stands before a wall of more than 50 portraits including the legendary English photojournalist Larry Burrows, the great war photographer Robert Capa, and the female US photojournalist Dicky Chapelle. Amidst the helicopters, tanks and bomb fragments, and the ongoing legacy of unexploded bombs and chemical contamination that Vietnam is still facing, ‘Requiem’ invites people of all nationalities to gather, reflect, grieve and remember.
Dr Lee Karen Stow is Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. In December 2015 she visited Sierra Leone as a Research Assistant on the Remember Me Diaspora case study directed by Dr Nicholas Evans.
Her exhibition ‘Poppies: Women, War, Peace’ is currently being exhibited in York following a successful run at the University of Hull. Her exhibition will be travelling to the US in 2018 where a reconfigured version, incorporating photographs from her current fieldwork in Vietnam, will be displayed at the University of Georgia.
Lee has previously contributed to our blog, and you can read her earlier entries here.