On the wall in the background, a grid of 12 boxes of sharp wooden nails protrude from the wall. Near it are two feminine hands extending from the wall, with long, threatening pink fingernails. In the foreground is a beige sculpture on a plinth of a deity with long fingernails.
Installation view, Ornamentalism (2023), by artist Le Hien Minh at John David Mooney Foundation Credit: Ngô Hứa Minh Trí

Subtly evoked or explicitly referenced, reclaiming individual narrative is a major subject for the Vietnamese artists whose work is on view in dual exhibitions at the John David Mooney Foundation: “A Village Before Us” and the Albert I. Goodman Collection of Vietnamese Art. The Goodman collection is one of the most complete collections of Vietnamese art from the second half of the 20th century. “A Village Before Us” transmutes the American war in Vietnam into a shrouded but strong current as explored by nine artists and scholars who do not have lived experience of the war, yet still navigate its social, personal, and political reverberations. 

“A Village Before Us” Closing reception with artist panel discussion
Fri, Dec 15, 4:00 – 7:00 PM, John David Mooney Foundation, 114 W Kinzie

The American imagination of Vietnam is often stuck in the 1960s. Blockbusters like 1979’s Apocalypse Now, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, and 2020’s Da 5 Bloods orient American audiences to view the conflict and region almost exclusively through one angle—that of Americans during the war. But what Vietnamese people, especially those from North Vietnam, experienced during the war and in postwar Vietnamese society today is underrepresented in the U.S., creating a black box of time and geography.

A woman with a microphone stands in front of a gallery wall hung with Vietnamese posters. She is pointing to one of the posters, an audience can be seen in the foreground listening to her.
Dr. Nora Taylor presenting the wartime posters section of the Goodman collection.
Credit: Ngô Hứa Minh Trí

We are lucky that it is in Chicago, not New York or California, that the highest concentration of Vietnamese artists in America are voicing their own narrative, according to Dr. Nora Annesley Taylor, cocurator of the exhibition along with Thuy-Tien Vo. Taylor brought the nine featured artists together, including Vo, to visit the Goodman collection, housed on the third floor, where Vo encourages visitors to start before making their way down to “A Village Before Us.”

The Goodman collection was pieced together by Goodman’s friend Bruce Blowitz, who purchased directly from artists during his travels in the 1990s to Vietnam, not long after Vietnam first opened to international markets in a reform called “đổi mới.” Before then, state censorship of artists forced many to sell and display their works privately. Half of the collection is wartime posters commissioned by the North Vietnamese government, who put their art students to task on the “cultural front” illustrating arresting images in the Soviet social realism style of female guerillas triumphantly bearing arms and expelling American invaders. These mass-produced works were painted with affordable gouache, filling the walls of the upstairs gallery-like windows. In one, we get a glimpse of a poster market where civilians trade and delight in the array of images—marking these works for public consumption. 

After the war, between 1975 and 1986, Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture limited artists’ access to international influence and strictly regulated production, which included prohibitions on abstraction and nudity that were not lifted until 1991.

Yet in the midst of political upheaval, artists still created art for art’s sake, playing with abstraction and impressionism—an empty street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a reclining woman’s figure, a bowl of fruit. Many refused to join state-sponsored exhibitions and arts unions. Bùi Xuân Phái was one of the leading artists who defied these regulations and whose work and ethos remain revered by Vietnamese artists.

Descending the narrow staircase between the two floors, one crosses through time and space, from postwar Vietnam to Chicago 2023. In “A Village Before Us,” you’re greeted by an open space framed with vaulted ceilings and exposed beams. A black-and-white wall-sized painting of repeating boxes welcomes you, to your right stands a delicate sculpture of a woman whose long curling fingernails are ready to strike—and humming beneath it all is the soft bubbling sound, from a far corner, of a rice cooker. The show emerges as a feast of visual, audio, and video sensations.

A grid of ten color photos zoom in increasingly closer on the driving school advertisement—an image of a smiling young Asian woman whose face has been scratched out.
Poster Girl (2023), by artist Maya Nguyen, is a grid of close-up shots capturing a truck trailer parked at Lichtenberg’s Dong Xuan Center, the largest Vietnamese market in Germany.
Credit: Ngô Hứa Minh Trí

These artworks are no less political than their counterparts above, but linger in the private, quiet introspections from the Vietnamese diaspora and span mediums: oil paint to photography, soundscapes to video installation, sculpture to cyber art. 

Most eye-catching is the established artist Lê Hiền Minh’s Ornamentalism (2023), a mounted 3D tableau that from afar looks like a porcupine’s back—four- to five-inch birch-colored needles as tightly dispersed as hair follicles protrude from 12 raised boxes. The spikes are actually fingernails constructed out of a traditional Vietnamese paper called “Do” and sharpened to a point. The effect is beautiful yet intimidating, even off-putting. Minh’s work has focused on the role of women in Vietnamese society, which, following her move to the States, translates to Vietnamese American women’s labor in nail salons. Minh’s video NAIL WOMEN (2023) documents Vietnamese aestheticians in Chicago, with close-ups of their delicate tasks of tweezing, poking, and decorating the peaceful faces of their clients, the sharp tools in their hands glinting from the light of the camera. “A Vietnamese woman is made to be submissive,” narrates one of the women Minh interviewed, when asked, “What is Vietnamese woman?”

The gender dynamic is stark. Many of the older paintings in the Goodman collection featured women and women’s empowerment as a theme—though it’s telling that only one of the works displayed was done by a female artist, Nguyễn Thị Lành. Do Trong Quy brings humor and subversion into his work, contrasting the American military’s treatment of Vietnamese women with his own take on American gender roles. Leaning into the trope of a green-card marriage, a series of paintings explores his daydreams of marrying a dog, or perhaps his own shadow, or another man, to achieve his ultimate dream of marrying a red-haired, pale American woman (modeled after Rose from Titanic), almost daring the viewer to answer him, “Why can’t I? When you have done the same to my country?”

In the opposite corner lies another series, Poster Girl (2023), a grid of ten close-up shots capturing a truck trailer parked at Lichtenberg’s Dong Xuan Center, the largest Vietnamese market in Germany. Artist Maya Nguyen zooms increasingly closer on the driving school advertisement printed on its side—an image of a smiling young woman whose face has been scratched out. As the zoom tightens, the depth and intentionality of the gashes through her pupils and exposed teeth are revealed. There’s a simmering anger below the surface, and its accompanying emotion, fear. What would possess someone to slash a face, even a photo of a face? Therein lies an uneasy truth coursing through the works—the freedom to move is liberating, but it’s unclear how far one can get from the political as a Vietnamese artist.

The ways in which Vietnam has shaped American psychology, mythmaking, and morality have not been equally explored from the other side, at least not in the public sphere. How do the dominant American war trauma narratives shape (and silence) Vietnamese narratives of themselves? What do they say in response? In “A Village Before Us,” we get not just one response, but multiple.

A laptop sits on a white shelf. A pair of headphones hangs on the wall nearby and a mouse connects to the computer. On the screen is a blue and yellow animation.
Planet Jent World, created by Đỗ Minh Giang (Jent), is a PC game of the artist’s private universe of dawdling distractions and hypnotic holograms.
Credit: Ngô Hứa Minh Trí

Perhaps my favorite addition to the discourse lay with a PC video game Planet Jent World (2023) created by artist Đỗ Minh Giang (Jent). Clicking through Jent’s indulgent, private universe of dawdling distractions and hypnotic holograms, I was delighted. Traditional lacquer painting motifs are distorted to the beat of a soundtrack featuring Vietnamese songs like “To Be A Cockroach” glitched out into techno beats. Lattice designs found on Vietnamese woodblock prints morph into scuttling beetles. I couldn’t help but marvel at how far this work has deviated from the posters displayed in Hanoi’s public squares. It recalled the spirit of the works of Bùi—personal explorations of color, movement, pleasure—for no purpose other than seeking joy, an instinct that prevails during war and political upheaval, perhaps even treasured more then than during peacetime. To have no overt political message endures as one of the most powerful political messages of all. 

“A Village Before Us”
Through 12/31: Tue-Fri 11 AM-6 PM, John David Mooney Foundation, 114 W Kinzie, avillagebeforeus.com

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