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Bửu Chỉ from the color-tinted fingerprints

D.C., Virginia, October, 2002

<div style="display: block; float: right; margin: 1em; border: 1px solid #8cacbb;"><img src="/ban-be/buu-chi/tranh-buu-chi/buuchiface.jpg" alt="Bửu Chỉ" title="Bửu Chỉ" height="400"/></div>

For a long time, for more than thirty years, I still have with me the small piece of painting on paper - the remains of Bửu Chỉ's color-tinted fingerprints.

I would imagine and paint around it. This time, the fingerprints are transformed into a girl's face. Chỉ said it looked like Vy. Tường Vy, a slender, sweet girl who lived a way beyond Từ Đàm pagoda... who later became Chỉ's wife, now with three grown sons.

We became close friends since then. Once in a while I would return to visit Bửu Chỉ at Vỹ Dạ. Chỉ lived in a back room on the left wing of his parents' house - a French style villa with a big yard on the bank of a river. (Chỉ's father was Mr. Ưng Thuyên, a grandson of Lord Tuy Lý who together with Lord Tùng Thiện were famed for their poetry among the Huế royal clan. Chỉ's father was also an amateur painter, but his artworks were not at all inferior to the artists with an official art school training. Chỉ's mother translated the Tale of Kiều into French. They doted on Chỉ since he was their youngest son).

Chỉ first studied the art of painting through Western books and magazines. I still remember that Chỉ would cut and paste on the back of his door Cezanne's motifs of still life and of people printed in Paris Match… I'd think Chỉ has studied the basic of oil colors from this master of contemporary European painting. There were color scales of gray, solid earthen yellow, together with hues overlapping on the canvas...

Bửu Chỉ has come and stayed with painting by a clear, conscious choice. At that time, Chỉ had graduated from the Law School of Hue University (1971). This was a time when the anti-war movement reached a high point with the impending Paris Treaty. And right after the signing of the treaty in 1973, we suffered the painful loss of a friend - the poet Ngô Kha. Bửu Chỉ then produced the painting "The Poet Lays Dying, The Heart Blooms", that was so sad and tragic. During his visit to France, Bửu Chỉ had repainted this piece and a few others in the New Year’s eve of 1989 to commemorate Ngô Kha.

With a beret askew on his head, Che Guevara style, moss-green khaki shirt, slender in frame but with a resounding voice, Bửu Chỉ was an active face of the marching days and sleepless nights organized by the Student’s Association of Hue. Chỉ's small paintings on paper by iron pen and black ink left strong impacts on others as did his words: "As long as tyranny exists we will continue to fight".

In 1972 Chỉ was arrested and imprisoned alongside many other students by the Saigon government. But this period of incarceration in Chí Hòa Prison, 1973-74, turned out to be the most productive time for Chỉ's paintings by iron pen and dark ink. They generated a strong impression that spread abroad (Chỉ has just gathered some of these paintings into a collection entitled Free Sun). After April 30, 1975 Chỉ returned to Sai Gon from Luc Tinh. He was eventually set free on that memorable day. After 1975, Chỉ produced numerous oil paintings, some of them on coarse canvas. I was at once obsessed by his paintings of coffee cups still life. He had been successful in creating his own artistic language, as Picasso has put it: "Art is the language of symbols". Coffee cups, one or many, in unusual, simple arrangement, some overturned... with coffee spilling out like frozen blood. Was it a time when we used to sit together at those shabby sidewalk coffee stalls, contemplating the ups and downs of life? It was the difficult years after Hue was liberated when Bửu Chỉ and Trinh Cong Son spent their time at the Binh Tri Thien literary club and I at the College of Arts. It was the time of the "Factory without Smoke" (a painting Bửu Chỉ did for the cover of Binh Tri Thien Art, No.1, 1976), in which Chỉ drew the Long Tho lime factory without smoke. The painting was slanted by the authority as a parody of the factory of a socialist society. We had to suffer this tyrannical way of analyzing arts... Not until over ten years later did the political atmosphere became more open. Raising from these oppressions, Bửu Chỉ began to speak out:

"... From the awareness that art only exists in freedom: to create art is the task of the individual. The creative individual needs honesty and courage...

People often ask what does it take to reach the pinnacle of art. I personally think that what it takes is to live life to the fullest and do your best. At some spontaneous, enlightening moment you'll reach the pinnacle. Don't ever put in front of you abstract peaks and then tiredly climb up there.

*Yet in whatever circumstance or situation, if you want to do real art you have to embrace life with your true self."*<br /> (Bửu Chỉ, "Embracing Life with my own self", Song Huong Magazine, Spring Mau Thin, 1988).

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Living in a dark environment full of pretense, Bửu Chỉ is a rarity in that he is able to maintain his pure creative energy...

<div style="display: block; float: left; margin: 1em; border: 1px solid #8cacbb;"><img src="/ban-be/buu-chi/tranh-buu-chi/buuchi97.jpg" alt="Bửu Chỉ" title="Bửu Chỉ" height="400"/><br /> Bửu Chỉ 1997</div>

Bửu Chỉ is constantly searching for new symbols in his paintings, namely, time and human destiny. Theatrical masks, a circus kid on horseback in the indigenous colors of Hue. Most exquisite is the face of a round clock in Chỉ's paintings, with Roman numerals, long hand short hand... that seem to conjure up some mystical space and time. Surreal, yes, but not indifferent like the clock on horseback in Dali's painting. Sometimes it appears to be a message of hope:

*Because my heart is like a pendulum clock,*<br /> *Don't you forget to wind it every day*<br /> *Life has begun since then...*<br /> (Ngô Kha)

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It might point to the hour when the writer Nguyen Tuan passed away, when there were only a few people standing over him Bửu Chỉ was there and recorded his emotions... Do you remember, Chỉ, we once rode a pedicab together across the streets of Ha Noi right up to Ô Cho Dua to visit Thai Ba Van...

The atmosphere in Chỉ's paintings is the dark gray space, the sun and the moon. The person is usually an emaciated figure like a bronze statue by Alberto Giacometti, a tragic character about to fall into an abyss. However, in Bửu Chỉ's paintings, the abyss is itself happiness from the unexpected flashes of light at the bottom of the painting amidst that shadowy atmosphere. And in his voyage through art, Bửu Chỉ has grown and matured.

Bửu Chỉ hardly painted landscape. But the one in which he painted the planetrees with a white bridge arching across the Loiret River, looking from Dang Tien's house in Orleans, in 1989, is a landscape painting, and an excellent one at that. Chỉ has jotted down in his notebook these lines by Tagore: "... today a bird has pointed out to me a path leading away from the woods to the shores of the ocean of joy... All of a sudden my heart opens wide". Indeed, the paintings Chỉ did in 1989 when he was in Paris for an exhibit were really freethinking...

Our most memorable souvenir is the joint exhibit of the three of us at the threshold of the twenty-first century : Trinh Cong Son, Bửu Chỉ, and myself displayed our paintings at the Saigon Gallery (from August 20 to September 7, 2000). Seven months after that Son passed away. Nothing could be more sad and painful for us. Chỉ and I shared the presentiment of Son's passing, but still Son's face, his laughing , his voice seem to linger on around us... even now. Bửu Chỉ studies Buddhism a lot and shares with me many lofty teachings of the Buddha. Chỉ also gave me a small jade Buddha statue, which I've been wearing around my neck as a precious souvenir. It also makes me feel safe as if I was protected... We always believe in a spiritual life, which I think is the source of artistic creativity.

The light color-tinted fingerprints which I have kept for more than thirty years still have not faded away, those fingerprints that time has shown to belong to an honest and talented friend. A romantic and humane spirit, Chỉ has asserted himself on the rough road of art. Bửu Chỉ is a name in the Vietnamese contemporary painting.

Like a blood drop of Viet Nam- and in a sense, like Trinh Cong Son- Bửu Chỉ is a blood drop of Hue (to borrow an expression of Cao Huy Thuan). Bửu Chỉ is still full of life ready for new experiments in his new paintings. Will there be a time when the sun and the moon would switch places ?

**D.C.**<br /> Virginia, October, 2002

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Translated from the Vietnamese by Nhu Hanh (Buu Chi's drawings and paintings, Tre publishing, 2003)<br /> Edited by tcs-forum.org

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