Art show exposes Agent Orange disaster

By John Percy — The Agent Orange Justice art exhibition held in Sydney August 7-11 has been hugely successful, contributing significantly to raising consciousness about this important but all too neglected issue.

Australian, Vietnamese and Vietnamese Australian artists donated paintings, posters, cartoons, installations and sculpture to expose the ongoing horror of the Agent Orange chemical warfare inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the US and Australian war in the 1960s and ’70s. August 10 was the 51st anniversary of the beginning of the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The works were sold by a silent auction, raising more than $25,000 for the victims, which will go to a facility for Agent Orange children initiated by VAVA, the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin. Bids came from supporters of the campaign, artists, art collectors, art dealers and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Australian War Memorial.


The event on August 9. Photo by Peter Arfanis.

The exhibition, organised by Agent Orange Justice — Australia Vietnam Solidarity Network, was launched on August 7 before nearly 300 people by NSW Governor Marie Bashir and Vietnamese Consul-General Mai Phuoc Dzung. It was held at the Mori Gallery, 168 Day Street, Sydney, kindly donated by gallery director Stephen Mori.

Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany — an Agent Orange survivor — performed extracts from her award-winning play, The Seed, about the daughter of an Australian Vietnam veteran who was damaged by Agent Orange.

Toxic atrocity

Eighty million litres of “herbicide” were sprayed on the forests, fields and people of Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, to deny shelter to the Vietnamese freedom fighters, and to deny them food and support from the local community. Most of this was Agent Orange, contaminated with high levels of dioxin, probably the most toxic chemical known.

More than 3 million people were killed or affected, with horrible birth defects inflicted up to the third and fourth generations. US and Australian service men and women and their children have also been terribly affected.

The exhibition was in aid of Vietnamese children suffering horrific birth defects as a consequence of Agent Orange/dioxin remaining in the soil, water and food chain in some parts of Vietnam and the consequential genetic damage continuing for generations.

The exhibition also launched a petition to the Australian parliament calling for support of the Vietnamese victims, land remediation and recognition of Agent Orange health issues for all veterans, and calling for the governments involved to acknowledge their responsibility. The US government has acknowledged responsibility for its own veterans suffering the effects of Agent Orange, and gives a limited amount of compensation to some of them, but still persists in denying a scientific connection for the Vietnamese victims.

A US effort to start addressing the problem in the Da Nang airbase, one of the 30 worst “hotspots” and one of the places where the deadly chemical was stored and where the spraying was organised from, has just begun, to much fanfare in the bourgeois media, engineered to hit the press on the eve of the 51st anniversary, no doubt a PR exercise seeking to drown out the AO survivors’ voices. But given the extent of the disaster and the real needs of the victims, this is clearly a token effort.

Raising awareness

Apart from raising a modest amount of money to go directly to the Vietnamese victims, the main gain of the event was raising consciousness among Australians about the severity and ongoing impact of the Agent Orange disaster. Articles about the Art Exhibition and the AO issue appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Inner West Courier.

ABC Radio Australia gave a very good Vietnamese language report, with photos and video interviews. There were also extensive reports in the Vietnamese media.

In the month leading up to the exhibition, we held AOJ stalls at the Addison Road Centre markets, warmly greeted by the crowds, collecting nearly 1000 signatures for our petition. We also organised a raffle with prizes donated by Le Tran Vietnamese restaurant, New Internationalist magazine and Gould’s Bookshop, raising $1500.

During the exhibition we screened informative DVDs over three evenings: In the Year of the Pig, the 1968 Oscar-nominated documentary by Emile de Antonio chronicling the historical roots of the war on Vietnam; documentaries on Agent Orange, including two from VAVA: Agent Orange /Dioxin and the Right to Life and The Path to Justice; Agent Orange, Agent Blue, the short yet powerful documentary by David Bradbury, using the poem by the late Denis Kevans,which was screened multiple times .

On August 11, we held a seminar that explored the impact of Agent Orange in Australia and Vietnam. Speakers were actor and playwright Kate Mulvany, Greens MP John Kaye, and Eva To from AOJ. It was followed by a party to celebrate the very successful event, drawing the raffle and thanking the many volunteers, who had also provided tasty Vietnamese food for the launch and the party.

Australian and Vietnamese artists

There was beautiful art by Vietnamese-Australian artists (some of whom are victims of Agent Orange), Vietnamese artists and well-known Australian artists, including a Dobell winner, an Archibald finalist and artists whose work is in state and national galleries and international collections. Participating artists included:

Suzanne Archer, Ray Beattie, Zanny Begg, Anna Bishop, Elizabeth Cummings, Carol Dance, Carleen Devine, Vuong Trong Duc, Bonita Ely, George Gittoes, Dominic Nguyen Hong Golding, Pamela Griffith, Kevin Hegerty, Johanna Hildebrandt, Astra Howard, Dot Kolentsis, Geoff Levitus, Carlie Lopez, Tobjorn Lundmark, Euan Macleod, Kelly Manning, Nerine Martini, Reg Mombassa, Nguyen Thi Chinh Le, Khue Nguyen, Ezster Maarosszeky, Mai Nguyen-Long, Nguyen Nghia Cuong, Nguyen Nghia Phuong, Nguyen Van Hien, Nguyen The Hung, Susan Norrie, Phi Phi Oanh, Peter O'Doherty, Sue Pedley, Ambrose Reisch, Erik Royds, Van Rudd, Greg Shapley, Wendy Sharpe, Maia Sinclair-Ferguson, Feyona van Stom, My Le Thi, Mark Tippett, Sophie Verrechia, Carla and Lisa Wherby, Fiona White, Simon Yates.

There were also posters and contemporary art from 20 Vietnamese artists, plus drawings by cartoonists Robert Carter, Rod Emmerson, Wayne Fleming, Eric Lobbecke, Alan Moir, Bruce Petty, Larry Pickering, David Pope and Nik Scott.

There were also photographs of Agent Orange victims by Hoai Thanh Pham, displayed in an impressive installation (4 x 15 metres), explaining the various diseases and conditions caused by the poison.

We also put up posters from the campaign against the war in Vietnam, Vietnamese political posters and information displays.

Justice when?

AOJ was established in June 2011, with a launch meeting addressed by Mai Phuoc Dzung, the Vietnamese consul-general, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, green bans activist Jack Mundey and Mike Karadjis from AOJ.

AOJ is the Australian section of the international campaign to hold the US government responsible for the disaster it created for millions of Vietnamese people as a result of its decade-long spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam. This international campaign is spearheaded by VAVA, and aims to pressure the US government and the chemical companies that produced Agent Orange, including Dow and Monsanto, to pay to clean up the toxic mess still contaminating parts of Vietnam’s environment and to provide adequate compensation to the Vietnamese affected.

Since its launch, AOJ has had encouraging success. It has set up a very informative website and a Facebook page. AOJ member Senator Lee Rhiannon presented a speech to parliament on the issue on November 8. Trade unions and other organisations have affiliated or provided statements of support.

AOJ has ambitious plans to develop the campaign in the coming year. Contact AOJ to build or contribute to our events, or to join or affiliate: .

Direct Action — August 26, 2012