In this week of MLK’s birthday and the inauguration of our first biracial president, I naturally think of the Civil Rights movement, but I also recall the Free Speech movement that happened almost simultaneously. What we now take for granted such as freedom of speech and expression (though some will argue in recent years, these liberties were greatly compromised) were actually hard fought by young men and women just several decades ago. So, it was especially poignant that this past weekend, I chose to drive seven hours straight to catch an art exhibit of Vietnamese (American) works with the theme of diverse perspectives as expressed freely in art, "Art Speaks." This is provocative in the Vietnamese American community.
For those not yet already in the know, the best way to describe the political climate of the Vietnamese American community is one of a perpetual cold war where red bating persists and the need to suppress all things deemed communists still exists for a vocal few. They have successfully dominated the discourse of "Vietnamese American community" and those with dissenting voices live in fear to speak their minds. This weekend I entered what I call the capital for the Vietnamese in diaspora, "Little Saigon" in Orange County. There, “anti-communist” protests are the norm.
A multi-generational group consisting of artists, scholars, students and community activists organized “Art Speaks” (supported by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association – VAALA). The exhibit was a direct reaction to a year-long, on-going protest by staunch anti-communist groups against a Vietnamese American newspaper for printing an “offensive” image of an art piece by Huynh Chau, and the recall campaign against the first female Vietnamese elected official in the United States due to a business district naming issue, Madison Nguyen. Meant as a vehicle to open dialogue between diverse groups within the Vietnamese American community, “Art Speaks” instead represents yet another instance of how alternative views are suppressed. Pressures from anti-communist protesters resulted in a forced shut down of the exhibit by the city of Santa Ana, California three days prematurely.
Exhibit organizers feel strongly they did not stand down to the protesters and that the exhibit was a success overall. "While it has been a difficult process, in the end, we were able to celebrate the enduring power of art within this community," proclaimed co-curator, Lan Duong. But, instead of programming and celebration on the last day of the exhibit, there I sat next to Lan Duong on what was to be the performance stage, witnessing artists one-by-one picking up their pieces to take home. If art speaks, art can also be silenced.
Though the exhibit officially closed down Friday, on Saturday there were still approximately 150 protesters outside the gallery building. I, of course, attended in hopes of getting better grasp of the situation. What I found was a rather well organized group of professional protesters. They had large prints of images and messages mostly along the lines of human rights for Viet Nam and how Ho Chi Minh is equivalent to Hitler. Different protest groups had their special messages they forwarded. It was more or less like attending a protest fair with booths and such.
The protesters eventually disbanded, but not before the dramatic altercation between a few of them and one man, James Du, for waiving what was reported in mainstream press to be a “communist flag.” In actuality, the flag was not communist but rather a Chau Huynh created quilt consisting of different sized South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese flags weaved together. James Du's “unity flag” offended the protesters so much that about a dozen of them beat on him causing the police in attendance to handcuff and take him away from the scene for his own protection. He claimed, "I counter protested to begin an open dialogue but before anything could be exchanged, I was beaten."
When the Saturday protest ended, vehicles began leaving the scene, some coming as far as San Jose. I followed the cars with images and slogan protesting against Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese Ethnic paper in Southern California. The protesters' base was right in front of the Nguoi Viet office. There I saw several protest trucks parked and a 15 foot statue of Viet Nam's ancient heroic figure, Tran Hung Dao, in a pose declaring war. Indeed, I was told by protest organizers that like Tran Hung Dao, they will not stop until the battle is won.
I approached their leader, Ngo Ky, who graciously spoke with me about reasons for their appearance at the “Art Speaks” protests that day. He felt the exhibit was really an extension of the Nguoi Viet newspaper, whose founders he believed had direct relations with the communist government in Viet Nam. He claimed, “The organizers [of "Art Speaks"] made a big deal about not silencing voices and they themselves just closed the exhibit. We were ready to protest them and they were not even open.” He stated he did not want the exhibit to shut down but did mention some of the pieces seemed very pro-communist and needed to be removed.
So, on Sunday, the exhibit organizers began breaking down the show. One of the artists I came across that day was Ann Phong, a first generation immigrant woman, one of the core organizers of the show and contributing artist herself. Her lovely piece of hands knitting, "Mending (A Women's Story)," immediately reminded me of my grandmother. As a single mother of nine, my grandmother took care of everyone in the day and stayed up most of the night knitting to make enough money for food. The sacrifices of women are rarely discussed or portrayed in Vietnamese American art. As Ann Phong turned to us, she said, "I could not sleep last night thinking about how this exhibit was shut down by a group of people who would not let us speak. I lied awake feeling like a rape victim. You feel so powerless, unable to speak. I know I will get over this and be stronger, but this minute I do feel violated."
Similarly, Jenni Trang Le, a second generation, spoken word artist and film maker, came through and openly expressed her sadness. With a half smile she said, "When Hi-Tek (referring to the thousands of Vietnamese Americans who came out to protest a man who hung a Ho Chi Minh image and flag of Viet Nam at his storefront) that broke my heart, then VAX happened (referring to the MTV-esque youth, English language, TV show that was protested and canceled because they were reviewing a documentary on the Hi-Tek incident and showed a clip of the image of Ho Chi Minh from the documentary) that broke my heart, and now this. I just don't want my heart broken anymore."
As an art enthusiast, it disappointed me greatly to know that such a fine exhibit will no longer have the audience it deserves. I count myself as one of the fortunate few who enjoyed the exhibit in its entirety. Coming upon the entrance, you are immediately taken by 24 feet long mural created by Dan Duy Nguyen and Mailan Thi Pham. I was first drawn the Takashi Murakami like illustrations but in closer inspection, it was more than a cutesie aesthetic work but rather it reveals a series of angst filled images that certainly seems to speak to the generational, cultural, and philosophical struggles that exists for young Vietnamese Americans.
Also at the entrance was a unique installation by Vuong Van Thao, "Living Fossils," part a 36-piece set. Initially I thought they were glass sculptures that were broken apart and miniatures of a Vietnamese store and electric tower from the "Old Quarters" of Hanoi were forced in then encased by glass. In actuality, I was told the sculptures were made of resin from Viet Nam but cracked under the weather there. The artist's message involved themes of "heritage," "preservation," and "living with the dying". For me, as someone who lived in Viet Nam extensively for research, I saw something more.
It is the idea and desire to keep the past as our parents and grandparents told us. In my case, it's Ha Noi before 1954. But the reality is change happens in ways we may not approve of or feel is right, but it happens. Such as in the case of how to maintain the dilapidated World Heritage "Old Quarters". However, in the end, it's not my place to want change for a memory or place that is not wholly my own. I think the cracked resin speaks to Viet Nam's awkward development as well as my own ill-fit into that society.
Learning from an artist friend about a particular piece, I looked long and hard for the "voting booth" installation by Lan Vu titled, "yours," but could not find it. I learned later it was encased in a large structure with sketches of the human form, male and female. The concept behind this installation was that you can "vote" for the communist flag, South Vietnamese flag, a black flag or create one of your own with markers available. You cast your vote by placing it in the lock box. Or you can simply shred what you have with a shredder provided. When I asked the artist if he plans to open the box eventually to see all the choices and creations, he replied, "No, I don't need to see the votes or self-created works. That was not the point. The point was the act of voting itself. In that booth you are free to express what you truly want without fear of suppression." Profound!
Moving on, a piece that caught my eye was "Tales of Yellow Skin" by long time fine artist (and actor too, actually), Long Nguyen. His massive oil based painting, beautiful in its rich layers, includes the subject of morbid scattered body parts. It very vividly represents the disembodied souls of Vietnamese refugees. Moving upstairs, I am caught by the work of Vi Ly, Long Nguyen's wife. With an impressive abstract measuring 180' x 90' and titled, "Terrain," this oil painting is masterful in its lines and depth. With its bursts of pinks and greens that resembled flowers blooming; it evokes sorrow and hope simultaneously.
I also got a good chuckle from Long T. Bui's brilliant work, "Super Fab Beauty Queen". Meant to show how women's bodies are represented in the ubiquitous and commercialized beauty pageants, it seems it could have many other interpretations. One would be how aging Vietnamese American men (as represented in the South Vietnamese flag sash) would go back to Viet Nam to be with supposedly docile and young Vietnamese women (as represented in the woman with the Vietnamese communist flag collar) all the while getting a little extra help with sexual enhancement drugs (as shown with the jar of viagra). Some times these same men may protest what they see as "communist" but choose to ignore their own role in shaping Viet Nam's cultural and social norms with their sexual liaisons.
With the multitude of fabulous art, when I finally entered the controversial "black room," it seemed just another aspect of the exhibit but certainly not the dominant grouping. There, Brian Doan's ultra controversial photograph hung. This photograph is of a young woman in a red tank with a yellow star (representing the Vietnamese flag) standing next to an ostentatious golden bust of Ho Chi Minh and a cell phone. Doesn't take much to interpret this as a look into modern day consumerism in Viet Nam and the questionable values that clashes with the original images of a materially modest Ho Chi Minh. Maybe the most politically charged aspect of that photo for me was that it has the dubious honor of being one of two works that was purportedly vandalized by the self-proclaimed hero of the community, former South Vietnamese officer, Ly Tong.
Possibly the most poignant piece in the "black room" was the other defaced work. Steven Toley's yellow canvas behind three lines of barb wires was meant to represent the suppression of art in Viet Nam and the U.S. But, the close resemblance to the South Vietnamese flag is undeniable. That flag is to serve as a symbol of freedom and democracy but there are people who claim it also represents censorship if they don't like what is heard or seen. Nothing says that clearer than the graffiti red "V" mark also left by Mr. Ly Tong. Talk about living art!
I also quite liked Huynh Chau's piece "Viet Link," a collage consisting of Vietnamese and Vietnamese American newspapers as a base with manic paint strokes as a second layer where you can make out traces of bodies. Meant as a critique of the power of media to misrepresent and therefore damage the image of the Vietnamese American community, I saw it as so much more.
Chau Huynh defiantly stood up for her art in the midst of a year-long protest against the newspaper that first printed it, says so much about the strength of artists in this ethnic community. In general it speaks to the strength of 50+ artists that submitted their art to "Art Speaks," cognizant of the controversy and protest that would follow. Defying those whose aim is to suppress art and sometimes even going against family members that have yet grasped ideas behind freedom of expression, these artists are cultural soldiers. I commend them as I do the ideals behind the exhibit as a whole.
The ironies of the exhibit, in its aim to present diverse perspectives in one show verses the so-called harbingers of democracy, the protesters, is not lost on anyone. It is difficult to claim one’s fight for freedom in one breath while subscribing to censorship based on what one deem as unacceptable cultural production in another. But certain vocal groups do and vow to continue battling those who disagree with them. I actually commend those who fervently and genuinely stand up for their beliefs, in this case anti-communism and preserving the memory of lost and sorrow. I'm impressed with how organized and professional the protesters have become over the years. I even like how they mock controversial art pieces by creating their own parodied versions in protest. And I find it amusing that a few go out of their way to "earn stripes" by flaming or vandalizing, though I don't think it necessary right. Additionally, they have their right to influence politicians, press, institutions...
However, my big gripe is that those in power either do not do their homework or are so self-serving that they would blatantly violate civil liberties. Politicians, police officers, and so on are in place to protect us, not cave in to perceptions and bullying. The city of Santa Ana, where the exhibit was held, for example, demanded the exhibit close due to the city's alleged inability to deal with crowd control. Then of course, the whole lack of city license was conveniently brought out when "Art Speaks" organizers would not back down. Additionally, State Assemblyman, Van Tran, for example, wrote a letter demanding the exhibit stop showing due to lack of sensitivity towards the "Vietnamese American community". What kind of leadership and forward thinking is all that?
I too have a gripe with media and their thirst to sell "news" at the risk of forwarding the untruths. It's shameful and it persists. So, when groups like VAALA or community members organize events, they not only have to contend with protesters (which VAALA consistently said do not intimidate them), they also have to deal with the lazy, greedy press and those questionable politicians in place to supposedly uphold the laws.
Lastly, it is the Vietnamese Americans themselves that should take ownership in how protests have become the most effective way to silence a people in order to advance an agenda. It's one thing for protesters to try and censor, it's another for Vietnamese Americans to self-censor. As the lone protester in support of "Art Speaks," James Du, said to me, "You know our community, they want to join me in the counter protests, but they never will and I don't expect them to. I will do it alone...I protested the war in Iraq so I will protest the remnants of the Viet Nam War here too." Well, guess what? Not only does art speaks, it shouts, and so do human beings.
My questions are, will the intent of the exhibit to open minds and dialogue catch on somewhere else? Will it move a people to also rise to claim their voices instead of surrendering to a vocal few? Will the 1st, 1.5, 2nd and even 3rd generations feel confident enough to claim their own sense of identity and understanding of their experiences as Vietnamese in diaspora? Can they do this away from the shadows of those mostly coming from the 1st generation with their strong views of what constitutes history and memory? Will the term "community" ever be seen broadly by the people as holding multiple voices versus only one voice and one ideal? There is hope that we can answer all in the affirmative but that remains to be seen by those invested in their future as part of the Vietnamese American community. What are your thoughts?
All images are property of mymonkeylounge.com except for the "free speech," "James Du," "speak no evil," "protest art,""voting booth," "star butt" and "Van Tran" photos.
"Pop Quiz" cartoon by Lan Vu.
"James Du," "voting booth," "star butt" are by Lan Vu.