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Village teacher sculpts stories of the sea

Update: August, 24/2014 - 19:27
Passionate: Ku Kao Khai devotes himself to his art. — VNS Photos Courtesy of Ku Kao Khai

Sculptor Ku Kao Khai creates pieces that offer a glimpse into the lives of Viet Nam's hardworking fishermen. Tran Hoa reports.

A village teacher has stunned the nation by winning three of the top prizes in a competition against hundreds of sculptors from all over Viet Nam.

His winning masterpiece Chuyen que (Village story), depicts the sea and the hardships of seamen in his coastal hometown in the northern province of Ninh Binh's Kim Son District.

Three prizes for one

Ku Kao Khai, 36, showed promise as a painter and sculptor. But after graduating from university, he returned to his hometown and instead of practicing fine arts, worked as a teacher at the Kim Tan Junior Secondary School.

Khai's friends thought he would be resigned to his fate and to teaching. But even while teaching, Khai quietly created works of art about his hometown. He surprised everybody who knew him when he attended the recent national sculpture exhibition and won three of its top prizes with a single piece.

Village story depicts a couple working on the alluvial ground of the Kim Son Sea. Besides hard work, sunshine and winds, the sea also brought the couple lots of fish, shrimp and happiness.

The work, described as "rustic but not unrefined" by painter Le Quoc Bao, earned second prize (there was no first prize in the competition) from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. It also got the A prize from the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association, and the A prize in an exhibition at the Hong (Red) River areas.

Rural tale: People contemplate Chuyen que (Village Story), which won three prizes.

News of the teacher's victory brought much joy to Kim Son District and attracted much public attention to the hardships suffered by residents of the poor and obscure fishing village.

As a child, Khai gained intimate knowledge of the sea from stories and actual experiences of fishing trips of his father and neighbours. When he grew up, he became a fisherman, going on off-shore trips that often lasted for a month and returning home with a boat full of fish.

To get a bountiful catch, the fishermen must go up against a variety of difficulties that include the strong waves of the ocean and the scorching heat of the sun.

"The area where I live is alluvial ground that is blessed with much sunshine and wind," Khai said. "It is the living space of hard-working people. A quick look at the place will show you only the exhausting work. But with the language of painting and sculpture, I want to recreate the rare and radiant beauty of the place alongside the difficulties of life by the sea."

In most of Khai's stories, the fishermen are depicted as dirt-black and austere. But their beauty is seen to come from the hardships in their lives.

"As they head out to sea, I like seeing them completely wrapped up in catching fish and shrimps and seeing the happiness on their faces as they fight to survive against the fierce waves. Their beauty is simple but respectable," said Khai.

Besides teaching, Khai also works on his own shrimp farm, an enterprise that has given others the impression that he is wealthy. He reveals that his wealth comes not from the shrimp farm but rather, from his deep understanding of the fishermen in his homeland.


Recent work: Ky uc Cua Viet (Memory of Cua Viet), Khai's latest piece.

100 stories about sea

"The fishermen not only earn their living courtesy of the sea, but are also the owners of the sea. I want to help them in their struggle for a better life with sculpture that tells their story," he said.

Khai is now on track to make his dream of telling 100 stories about the sea through his sculptures come true.

Probably his most impressive work revolved around Chinese ships and water cannons which were used to prevent Vietnamese fishermen from operating on their own waters.

Last May, China illegally dispatched the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou-981, along with a large fleet of armed vessels, military ships and aircraft, to Viet Nam's continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.

Rough-hewn: Ngay nhap ngu (Day to Join the Army), one of the sculptor's wooden pieces.

Khai's work described a huge ship crashing into small boats and water cannons, blowing away fishermen's catch.

"I think the nation's sovereignty has been confirmed by simple labourers. They remain steadfast in daily work to protect the nation's sovereignty against rain and wind," said Khai.

So far, most of the art works about the nation's seas and islands take the form of music and poems, but Khai has found sculpture more suitable for describing the fishermen and the sea.

As a teacher, Khai has shared his knowledge of the nation's seas and islands with his students. From the confines of his village school, his students have in turn deepened their understanding of and love for their country and its sovereignty. — VNS

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