Vietnamese and Americans Build Bridges With Art

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REMINDERS of the Vietnam War abound in the streets of Hanoi, from the khaki Army-style pith helmets favored by Vietnamese men to the air-raid siren that eerily alerts the city to lunchtime at noon every day.

Even in the city's fine arts museum, there's no escape these days.

``As Seen by Both Sides,'' an exhibition of paintings by 40 North American and Vietnamese artists about the war their countries fought two decades ago, is on display in Vietnam for the first time, after more than three years on tour in the United States.

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Some of the artists are veterans and see their art as helping them come to terms with their experiences of the war, which lasted from the early 1960s until 1975, when Communist forces defeated US-backed South Vietnam.

Only now is the US government moving toward lifting economic sanctions in force since the war and establishing diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

C. David Thomas, director of the Indochina Arts Foundation, which organized the exhibition, says it gives people of both countries a chance to view the other side's responses to the conflict.

``The few Americans, particularly veterans, who have been able to return to Vietnam have found the experience a healing one,'' he says.

The Vietnamese have put the war behind them ``and are willing to teach us to do the same,'' he says, adding: ``It is time we accepted their challenge of `peace with honor.' ''

Quach Van Phong, head of the Fine Arts Association in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, described the war as painful for both sides.

``The artists in this exhibition seek to heal that wound through mutual understanding, which they hope will lead to a sincere and long-lasting friendship between the two peoples,'' he says.

Gallery director Tran Khanh Chuong, who has two paintings in the show, says: ``It makes the veterans of the two sides understand each other better.''

Few of the 82 paintings portray combat. The Vietnamese focus more on the everyday grind of the war, some depicting guerrilla units on the move or resting. In one, a man has a jungle haircut.

The Americans show more diverse images - guns poking out from bamboo thickets, rifles juxtaposed with artificial limbs, and the late Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh with a child.

THREE paintings are based on the widely printed news photograph of South Vietnam's police chief, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Communist suspect in a Saigon street with a shot to the head.

American artist Tin Ly, born in Vietnam, calls his picture, ``Gunshot Heard Around the World.''

Ohio artist James Cannata writes of that photograph: ``It just floored me, that one person has the power to decide that another person's life is over.''

The exhibition - whose visitors have included Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the chief Communist strategist in the war - will travel later this year to Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese galleries.

Some visitors find the show important because wars are still being fought outside Vietnam or because of its potential to bring reconciliation.

``It's definitely relevant because a lot of people have a lot to come to terms with,'' says Jennifer Keen, a tourist from London who saw the exhibition.

But Dutch tourist Marieke Snyders, who lives in France, considers the exhibition out of place. ``I think it should be in another museum, maybe an army or war museum but not in a museum of fine arts,'' she says.

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