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Phan Bội Châu's Bronze bust by Lê Thành Nhơn

What is striking about Lê Thành Nhơn's huge bronze portrait of Phan Bội Châu is that it's so different from the usual commemorative statues of national heroes. It's not a man astride a horse, nor is it a man standing upright, holding a sword in his hands, or clutching a book close to his chest.

No, what confronts you as you walk through the gate of Phan Bội Châu's burial place is an imposing face framed by the canopy of the surrounding trees, a face with an immense forehead, a steely but gentle gaze, and a massive beard that ends abruptly at the base of the sculpture. As you walk up closer you discover that around the sides of Phan's bust, discretely woven into its bas-relief are the scenes of important Vietnamese historical turning points, images of traditional life intermingling with images of historical figures such as the Trung sisters and references to earlier national struggles. It is as if the artist is trying to say that here we have a national hero, but let's not forget that he was in part a product of the thousands of years of tradition which was the common heritage to all Vietnamese.

Struck in bronze in 1972, using traditional casting techniques and skills of local artisans, Phan Bội Châu's bust heralded the arrival of Lê Thành Nhơn as one of the most accomplished sculptors of Vietnam. It established Lê Thành Nhơn as one who would not fear to break away from existing formulae, inviting others to see things differently all the time. And this sense of freshness of perception is one that pervades all his works that I have been fortunate to have seen.


Lecturer & Translator (Australia)

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