'Pioneer' octogenarian Vietnamese artist gets first solo exhibit

The almost 90-year-old Vietnamese artist Mong Bich chooses a place on the tiled floor of her favorite room, checks the light and sits down to paint.
As a "pioneer" who has inspired generations of women artists in Vietnam, Bich has received overseas praise and she has a watercolor in the collection of the British Museum.
But she has been overlooked in her home country for years - and had to wait until this month for her first solo show.
"For me, painting is like eating rice - I have to eat rice and I have to paint," Bich told AFP in her house on the outskirts of Hanoi, where she works up to eight hours a day.
At first she was reluctant to hold a solo show, but her children encouraged her.
"I don't want to sell my work, so I didn't get the point. My pictures are my memories," she said before the opening of this month in the capital.
Bich specialized in silk pictures of everyday life and common people - especially women - and plowed a lonely furrow during the years of war against the United States when artists were tricked into drawing soldiers or front line workers.
"Portraits of individuals were not valued at the time, but they were Mong Bich's forte," said Phan Cam Thuong, an eminent art critic and researcher.

- 'Painting is happiness' -
Bich was born in 1931 during the French colonial era and for decades took care of her husband, a violinist and independence fighter who was wounded while fighting the French armed forces in Laos. They lived in desperate poverty while she raised her two children.
In order to earn a living, she enrolled in one of the first classes of the newly opened Vietnam College of Art in Hanoi in 1956 and took a job drawing propaganda caricatures for a newspaper.
But she never stopped sketching what she saw in the streets - a poor old woman curled up on the floor and a mother nursing a baby, a drawing that was considered so scandalous that she was Removed from an exhibition in 1960.
"I paint alone, in my style," she said. "Some like my pictures, some don't - I really don't care."
Despite everything she had to do with, her "pioneering spirit" showed through and she persisted in her work, said Nora Taylor, professor of South and Southeast Asian art history at the School of Art Institute in Chicago.
"I think a lot of women looked up to her later."
Bich's watercolor portrait of an elderly woman sitting on the floor won first prize at the Vietnam Fine Arts Association's annual exhibition in 1993, but fame didn't follow.
The lack of recognition is due to "a kind of erasure of women's contributions to Vietnamese art history," Taylor said, as has happened in much of the world.
But that is finally changing and it is increasingly recognized that Bich's life and paintings are testimony to what many went through in 20th century Vietnam.
"In many ways, her story is the history of Vietnam. Her life was not an easy one," said Thierry Vergon, director of L'Espace, the French cultural center where the Hanoi exhibition was held.
"There was a lot of pain, a lot of death, but it kept going."
For Bich, her work was always a way of dealing with what life threw on her.
"Happiness was when I could do a sketch or a painting," she said.
"That was my way of dealing with life's difficulties."
bur-aph / dhc / oho / jah

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