The Vietnamese American Artists Searching for Identity

An Mi Le barely remembers the hawaiian shirt she wore when the blonde American loaded her in a black cargo van. Many of the artist’s memories from the spring of 1975 are intermingled with one another, but there are the slanted piles of burlap sandbags lining the bedroom walls, the fallen cannonballs that lined the road near the school like breadcrumbs. What remains clear in her from these days is the deep fear that the effects of the 21-year war that has divided her homeland from her own have overwhelmed Saigon. The city prepared for the capture of the capital by the Northern Communist Army Quang Di Nhan Dang Vietnam and the Bien Cong, a guerrilla-style militant group from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. in Cong Hoa, Vietnam — What the United States and other Western nations knew as the Republic of Vietnam. Leh spent the night at a military tarmac in Tan Son Nut, Saigon. At an air force base with his father and two brothers. As dawn broke, she took one last look out of the window of an American C-130 plane at the landscape disappearing into the clouds. she was 15 years old.

For artists of Les generation, complex emotions of anxiety and anger, guilt and abandonment all intersect. People who are not fully Vietnamese in Vietnam and not American in America. Rather than political protest, these war-torn Vietnam-born American artists use their memories for emotional exploration through the generational trauma that has plagued their families since the day they left their hometown. ing.

How refugee culture is endured in America is a complex concept that is difficult for anyone to comprehend. The Vietnamese diaspora, a marginalized generation who had no choice but to flee their homeland and then integrate into a hostile society, is at the heart of the divide they have grappled with over the past 50 years. And now, at long last, Western institutions are giving displaced artists space to face these traumas.

“We haven’t talked about it since,” said Le, 63, whose retrospective will be held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October. She currently lives in Brooklyn. After leaving Vietnam, her family was taken as refugees to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, before moving to Guam’s Wake Island, and eventually to Wake Island, which has housed more than 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees since April. He was transferred to Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps training center in Southern California. October 1975. After gaining U.S. patronage, they settled in Orange County, where they were eventually reunited with her mother, who had been one of the last refugees from the U.S. Embassy after the fall of Saigon. “I always looked back on the experience as, ‘Oh my God, it was nothing.’ I feel very lucky, I never thought I would be able to go back.”

American assimilation and its impact on identity has long been of interest to Hung Phin, 46, who left his home country after the war ended. Her parents were already living in the refugee state in 1978 when they bought a large fishing boat to stow away from the southwestern port city of Lac. Her mother was descended from Southern Chinese immigrants and her father was a Cambodian genocide survivor. gear. Beneath the deck of the rickety ship, she and her family of more than 30 were quietly huddled between crates of raw fish and ice on their way to camp in Thailand. After spending her three years in Michigan, she has lived in Los Angeles ever since. “A lot of trauma, resentment and a feeling of having to be grateful have been passed down to her,” Huynh said of her family’s experience.

Her 2021 series “American Braized,” which is on display at the ongoing exhibition “Vietnam in Transition, 1976 to Now,” at the Wende Museum of Art in Culver City, California, explores images of her own refugee experience. , embedded in a cumbersome glass snow globe. wooden base. In one sphere, silver confetti shards float around a weathered image of Vietnamese civilians climbing over each other to reach helicopters evacuating the roof of the US Embassy during the fall of Saigon. In another photo, Huynh’s first photograph of a white Christmas in the United States is swallowed by grains of snow. The memento, like much of the multidisciplinary artist’s work, serves as an encapsulation of her memory. They also speculate about what happened. “What would have happened if we had stayed?” the artist asks. “Who would I have been if there had been no war?” She still keeps a go bag with the passports of her two sons at all times.

Saigon-born Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States with his family in 1979 and lived in Oklahoma and Texas before settling in California, has asked himself similar questions throughout his life. . The 47-year-old artist’s sculptures and video works express the idea of ​​moving abroad and returning to an unfamiliar home. This was his first-hand experience when he moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts. His first American exhibition was held this month at the New Museum in New York. In addition to new works, the exhibition will also feature a 2022 project composed of an unexploded ordnance encountered by Nguyen, co-founder of the artist collective Propeller Group, in Quang Trang province in northern Vietnam. By creating an Alexander Calder-esque mobile tuned to 432 hertz (a frequency said to enhance perception and enhance mental clarity) out of shell fragments and salvaged bomb metal, the artist connects his home with concrete. are trying to come to terms with each other.

People move forward by confronting the demons of the past, but such solutions are not so easy for the Vietnamese diaspora, whose memories are haunted by the loss of life, land, and childhood. The Viet Cong was the horror they grew up with, but even more horror awaited them as they crossed the Pacific to start over. As a result, many of the works on this subject leave the viewer as frozen and struggling to move forward as the artists who created them.

“I think a lot about the concept of the enemy,” says Leh, who took part in and photographed Vietnam War reenactments in Virginia and North Carolina from 1999 to 2002. When she first returned to Vietnam in the ’90s, a grant-funded Yale master’s degree, she didn’t travel to visit her home, renamed after communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Rather, it was to walk over the alien terrain of the enemy. The artist found himself surrounded by North Vietnamese who had no choice but to attack their countrymen. They wore the same uniform that the reenactors would have worn decades later—the one she wore. “This allowed me to understand the notion that Vietnam is not an event, but an idea or a myth. By blurring those lines, I think I found sympathy.”

For nearly five years, Mr. Leh returned to his home country once a year to continue his adventures in a world once unimaginable. “It was extraordinary,” she recalls, particularly of Hanoi, the capital where she grew up with relatives her mother never knew existed, and Thai Binh, known as the home of rice. “I felt at home [in the north] I had never been there before. Captured in this process, Le’s Vietnam series (1994-98) presents her attempt to reconcile the lost memories of Vietnam’s blood-soaked soil with the contemporary landscape. In 1995, MoMA purchased a black and white photograph of a precarious girl. Kaw Khufu Crossing the Mekong Delta (“Monkey Bridge”), the first artist’s work purchased by a major art institution. This fall, that image will be joined by 17 other large format photographs from the project as part of New York’s largest museum survey by the artist. Thirty years after he took the photo, Leh still struggles to articulate what it means to his understanding of his own identity. “That culture, my culture, felt very indescribable at the time,” she says. “I had memories and extensions of what I had lived and what I was told I had lived, but I didn’t know it. I understand the department.”

But did it answer all of her questions? “No, not at all,” she says.

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