A Masterly Duo Regain the Muse
By ASIAWEEK December 8, 1989


Nguyen Thi Be was a 15-year-old prodigy in 1954 when she breezed into Saigon just as Vietnam was being severed in two. With her birthplace in the north under Ho Chi Minh's socialist order, Be Ky, as she is known professionally, found the southern capital more fertile for her talents. The young stylist in Chinese ink came under the wing of an older artist and began hawking her paintings on the city's streets. By the time she was 18, Be Ky was a celebrity. Her first one-woman show had ignited a fevered demand for her vignettes of poignant everyday scenes executed with swift, impressionistic lines on paper layered with lacquered eggshell.

Only much later did she discover that her guru had been selling copies of her work under her forged signature. Accused of treachery, the man struck her on the head until one ear bled. That trauma left her deaf in the right ear. The political trauma that later turned Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City left her artistically smothered. It was the deafness that finally proved to be her ticket out of isolation.

"My wife and I both believe that art is not possible where there is no freedom," says Ho Thanh Duc, Be Ky's husband and a collage artist of international repute in his own right. The couple together with three of their four children left Vietnam las June to settle in United States. Unlike Vietnam's boat people, they did not slip out to the high seas under cover of darkness. They left on board an authorized flight to the Philippines under the Orderly Departure Program, a system whereby emigre' of approved status and destination get regular exits to new lives abroad. Duc and Be Ky won the right to leave for America to get advanced medical attention to Be Ky's hearing.

Pending the final leg of their journey this month, the family have made their home in a transit center for refugees in Morong, a port on the seaward face of the Bataan Peninsula across the hills from Manila Bay. In this bucolic retreat, the artists refreshed their senses by drinking in sights and colors reminiscent of their own homeland. Says Be Ky: "We always look to where we came from each time we say we have to go on."

One product of this dreamscape in which they have lived out a pause between lives is a scene of water buffalo staring beyond the mountains of Morong. This haunting collage by Duc figured among the couple's 37 pieces put on show in mid-October at Manila's Hiraya Gallery. Duc conjured the image with bits of variously coloured paper built up architectonically and cemented to his canvas by a special insect- repellent glue imported from Japan.

"The similarity of Morong and Vietnam has helped me release my tension and oppression," he says. And the mysteriously rapt herd of buffalo? "They could symbolize a family that is pining for a lost home." The Manila show was the first public display by either of the artists since a year before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Though neither engages in anything that can be called political or protest art, they found themselves creatively suffocated in the atmosphere of the declining Saigon regime and the ensuing communist takeover.

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