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Upon arriving in the United States as a 16-year-old, Teo Nguyen encountered two different views of Vietnamese culture. One was familiar, and informed by his experience growing up in Vietnam. The other was foreign—a version of his identity distorted by outsiders.
“It’s really formulated by non-Vietnamese, by people who don’t know us and by people who don’t seem to understand us.” Nguyen said.
The depictions of Vietnam that Nguyen observed in American media and culture felt reductive, he said. Vietnamese women were often portrayed as sacrificial lambs or prostitutes; Vietnamese men appeared discardable and obtuse.
Nguyen confronts those mischaracterizations through Việt Nam Peace Project, an art exhibition devoted to reclaiming the narrative of post-war Vietnam. The project will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art starting July 30.
“This particular project is really my way of challenging the majoritarian narratives of what it means to be Asian American, what it means to be an American with Vietnamese heritage,” Nguyen said in a phone interview with Sahan Journal.
The exhibition features 40-odd photorealistic paintings, a short film inspired by Nguyen’s mother, a paper installation illustrating the human cost of the Vietnam War, and a photo assemblage, titled “Agent Orange,” suspended from the ceiling.
Nguyen hopes that these elements, together, will invite viewers to practice peace. “By learning, by developing empathy,” he said. “By welcoming perspectives of those different than ourselves.”
Dennis Michael Jon, the museum’s associate curator of Global Contemporary Art, collaborated with Nguyen to put the exhibition together.
“He’s a very skilled and accomplished painter. Very thoughtful, introspective, quiet,” Jon said. “I kind of see him as a cultural explorer.”
‘The sorrows exist, even when we don’t see them’
Nguyen was born in Cam Ranh, a small Vietnamese fishing town, in 1977, and moved to the United States as a teenager. Some of his artistic inspiration is familial: His father is a painter, his mother, a poet.
“She’s my beacon of wisdom,” Nguyen said.
“My Being,” a short film inspired by the life and art of Nguyen’s mother, presents one of the highlights of the exhibit. The film will screen alongside a selection of her handwritten poetry.
“When I picked up her journal for the first time, I was expecting stories of struggle,” Nguyen said. “But they were really beautiful stories of things that she cherished, and that she placed close to her heart.”
Nguyen studied art and design in San Francisco, Fresno, and Paris, and has spent the last decade living and working in Minneapolis. His work can be found in the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Weisman Art Museum.
Some of these works fall into the genre of landscape painting. Nguyen’s prior work invites Minnesota viewers to appreciate a sight they may take for granted: the vastness of the rural Midwest.
Nguyen draws on that background in the more than 40 photorealistic paintings that make up the centerpiece of this new exhibit. This time, however, he is rendering the Vietnamese landscape as it appeared in archival news photographs from the Vietnam War.
The paintings, which range in size from just a few inches to several feet across, echo their photographic counterparts—with one major difference. In turning these photos into acrylic paintings, Nguyen has chosen to omit the soldiers, the violence, the victims, and the machinery of war. All the viewer sees is the beauty of the landscape.
The paintings evoke a sense of stillness. “Trong Tay Nhau,” (whose title translates to “You Are Me and I Am You”) presents the viewer with a 6 ½-by-10–inch rendering of a Saigon streetscape. Bright, residential buildings can be seen in the background, but with no signs of human activity.
This stillness makes for easier viewing than the harrowing and iconic photograph that inspired it. The original image, which made front-page news in February 1968, featured a South Vietnamese police chief publicly executing a Viet Cong fighter.
“I’m showing reverence for the lives and the suffering that took place, and the sorrow that’s imprinted in the landscape,” Nguyen said. “Through my spirituality, I believe that the stories and the souls and the sorrows exist even when we don’t see them.”
Nguyen’s spirituality guides his work, he says. Nguyen is an animist, and sees life in natural objects—including the landscape. “Even abstract objects—landscapes—take meaning and have spiritual value to them,” Nguyen said.
Crafting a response to the Vietnam War Memorial—out of paper
Nguyen takes a step away from painting, however, with “Remembering Others,” which depicts the enormous loss of life caused by the Vietnam War. The installation uses stacks of paper to illustrate the disparity in the death tolls of the war: 60 stacks of paper to approximate the number of Vietnamese lives lost, and one stack for American lives.
Nguyen references the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. to underline this disparity.
“It’s 150 yards long, with 58,220 American soldiers’ names inscribed in black granite,” he said of Maya Lin’s famous monument. “If Vietnam were to build a similar memorial with the same density of names, it would be 10 miles long.”
But while Nguyen’s work is informed by war, his mission is nonviolence.
“Vietnam has only recently seen a period of peace,” Nguyen said. “We have been continuously colonized, occupied for thousands of years. I want nothing more for Vietnam than to continue to have optimism and peace without occupation.”
Việt Nam Peace Project is a free exhibition, and will be on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art from July 30, 2022 to June 18, 2023. For more information, visit MIA’s website.