Refugees' Art Reflects Old and New Vietnam

BURBANK - Black ink slashes white silk, and a lost world emerges.

A water buffalo dips one curved horn into a rice paddy. An ancient woman clutches a bowl. A mother comforts her child, touching her cheek to his smaller one in a gesture of infinite tenderness.

These spare brush strokes made Be Ky a celebrity in the Saigon art world at the age of 18. A year ago, at the age of 51, she and her husband, Ho Thanh Duc, a renowned collagist, left Vietnam, settling recently in Garden Grove.

The couple has joined a tiny but productive community of Vietnamese artists in exile. Many live or paint in Orange County, but their unlikely focal point is a gallery in Burbank. It is owned by a young etcher, Nguyen Viet, who has been trying to introduce paintings and sculpture by Vietnamese refugees to the American market.

Their works range from traditional brush-and-ink drawings to primitivist sketches, modern acrylics and post-modern etching. Some are fierce, like Ho Thanh Duc's marbled collages of an anguished Christ. Others are sentimental. Yet the artists express common themes: melancholy, nostalgia and transcendence.

"I don't want (Westerners) to think of Vietnam as just a war-torn country," said Nguyen Thi Hop, 46, who layers watercolor onto silk to produce ethereal scenes of rural life a century ago. "I want to show them that the other side of Vietnam is beautiful and poetic."

If the art is serene, the artists' lives have not been. Be Ky and her husband were both war orphans. At the age of 12, she went to live with an abusive artist who recognized her talent and exploited it.

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Artist Ho Thanh Duc


Artists Be Ky and Ho Thanh Duc