19th June 2021
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How the Arts Community Portrayed Agent Orange

Agent Orange
By Carol Dance

Who tells the story of the survivors of Agent Orange the best? The veterans? The Western anti-war activists? The big film studios? Or, the Vietnamese themselves? Readers can search Agent Orange to find out the horrific details, but the most important fact is that the damage will continue for several more generations. It’s not over yet. The toxic dioxin in Agent Orange still remains in the water and soil in several populated areas of Vietnam. These toxins cause damage to the genes that continue to be inherited for many generations. Someone drinking contaminated water today could have a deformed, cancer-ridden or blind grandchild in 2060.

As Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield. The second war can be just as brutal.”

August 10 is Agent Orange Day. It marks the day in 1961 when the U.S. began aerial spraying of toxic herbicides over Vietnam. Long after the War, western artists told the world about the damage the chemical was having on the people of Vietnam and the veterans from five Western countries. For example, in Australia the incidence of leukemia is 300% higher among veterans than in the general population. The incidence of spina bifida among veterans’ children is 1000% greater than the general population. (Veterans Affairs Report 1996). The stats in America are similar. This realisation eventually led to court cases, American films and other art works portraying the veterans’ stories.

The damage was far worse for the Vietnamese but very few Western artists tell that story, concentrating on their own veterans’ plight. The Vietnamese diaspora generally won’t talk about the effects of Agent Orange, but there are a few exceptions. Australian-Vietnamese Mai Nguyen-Long has created many powerful paintings and sculptures. Her Transgressing the Carp is part of a series of large paintings that uniquely and powerfully show the horrors of Agent Orange.

The Vietnamese have created potent poster art that tells their story and advances their cause.

The posters in this article are a powerful reminder today that dioxin still affects the Vietnamese. These poster artists are sponsored by the Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA).

Documentary makers may also be interested in the multi-award-winning film Chau, Beyond the Lines. Chau, a teenager living in a care centre, has a severe disability in his arms and legs. Filmed over 8 years, Chau eventually realises his dream to become an established artist, painting by holding the brush in his mouth.

August 10, Agent Orange Day, a day for creatives everywhere to find new ways for the world to remember what happened.

Also by Carol:

Theatre Classics address Climate Crisis: Belvoir and STC

Has Netflix Homogenised Us? We Are All Watching The Same TV

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