Trâm Lê is serving as the President in the current Board of Directors of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA). Her online biography is at: http://www.vaala.org/staff_Tram-Le.php.
Da Màu: Do you try to change the community’s political beliefs, the way people view arts, or the way they view others that have different political beliefs?
Trâm Lê: Our intentions for the exhibition was not to change anyone’s mind, but rather to offer the community an array of viewpoints (through the artworks) to expand on certain definitions that have been defined narrowly within the community—namely “art,” “politics,” and “community.” Our goal was that through the diverse artworks, performances, panel discussions, and activities presented through those 10 days, people will engage in conversations and see that the community does not have only one voice or one way of viewing different issues, and most importantly, the community is not (and should not be) black and white.
We do not want to subscribe to this type of dichotomous politics—of being either anti- or pro-communist. We are not here to judge anyone’s politics in fact. Our goal is to show that we have DIVERSE range of political beliefs and multi-faceted stories and that we should have the freedom and confidence to speak about them.
Da Màu: Do you anticipate a protest and conceptualize it as part of an overall exhibition?
Trâm Lê: We were definitely aware of the possibility of a protest; however, we were not sure how it would play out. We had planned that in the context of the entire exhibition with all the descriptions and labels on the wall, the viewers’ reactions would have been varied and will further conversation rather than close down lines of communication. Unfortunately, because of the LA Times skewed article that came out before the opening of the exhibition, certain images and quotes were taken out of context, and the anti-communist faction was prematurely inflamed. This was further fueled by certain Vietnamese community media mistranslating Linda Vo’s quote, “The exhibit will test the community…” to mean that VAALA is provoking the community (VAALA thách thức cộng đồng…).
On the other hand, we understood the need for these staunchly anti-communist groups to voice their concerns. We knew that for many of them, they have been carrying around a pain that they feel have not been acknowledged in history and possibly by their own families, so protesting is a way for them to (re)claim their voice and themselves as brave soldiers who fought to protect their country and loved ones and that they are not these “losers” or “puppets” as they are referred to by both the Communist and American government as if they are not valid in history.
Even when we first thought of our exhibition being protested, we were hoping to invite them in to have dialogue with us. We invited around eight “prominent” protestors to be part of a video art installation we called “The White Room: All Voices Considered.” Four of these people agreed to be interviewed by a community leader from VAALA and be filmed by a notable Vietnamese American filmmaker. A week before the exhibition opening, a public announcement of a lawsuit against some of these protestors made it legally complicated to continue with the White Room project.
Da Màu: Some people say that, what this exhibition has been doing is equivalent to showing a portrait of Hitler in the Jewish community, or that of Castro in the Cuban community. What do you think of these comparisons?
Trâm Lê: The Museum of Tolerance, located in West L.A. a heavily-Jewish-populated neighborhood, shows a portrait of Hitler along with many other Nazi members who have committed heinous crimes against the Jews during WWII. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also located in West L.A., had an exhibition of Nazi memorabilia in 1991. Countless films and biopics made in Hollywood (a heavily Jewish-populated industry) talk about the complexities of Hitler as a human being rather than his being simply a monster.
It is not about the image, symbol, or colors. It is about the contextualization of those things, and if anyone attended F.O.B. II and read the catalogs and signs, it would be evident that we provided sufficient context. Of course when you show only the photo by itself, then it is taken out of context and can be seen as offensive. But even then, I do not think the photo is saying that the Communist government in Vietnam is good. If you stop at the symbols and are offended immediately, then you are giving those things too much power over you by allowing them to continually hurt you. And by not allowing other people to use those symbols, then you are giving the Communists more power by saying that only they can use them.
I understand Brian’s artwork to be a critique of the Communist government in Vietnam, and his use of the symbols as being juxtaposed with iconic consumerist symbols such as a cell phone and jeans. How do you propose to critique something without using those images? It is like writing a critique on Ho Chi Minh or Hitler and not being able to use their names in your essay for fear that the name would offend certain people. Perhaps another artist would choose to use the symbols in different ways, but this is how Brian chose to use them.
Da Màu: In your curatorial statement, you mention “the toxicity of this legacy of war” and “the process of healing and strengthening our community in a lasting way.” Can you specify some limitations of legacy thinking and give some sketchy details of a supposedly healed community? Does this differ from complete assimilation?
Trâm Lê: The Japanese American community is wonderful example of a community that has used the arts to heal. They have mobilized the community to build a multi-million-dollar museum called the Japanese American National Museum located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles to honor the past as well as exhibit different viewpoints of the war including the internment experience in the U.S. where they were treated like foreign prisoners of war and had all their possessions stripped from them (house, business, car, etc.). The JA community is now thriving and continues to support the arts so that more people can express their true feelings without fear of being shut down.
We also should be aware of not inheriting the trauma of our parents and feeling the need to rescue them by speaking for them. The point of the exhibition is for each person to speak for him/herself.
I do not advocate for “assimilation” as something to aspire to. I believe we can keep the integrity of our own individual cultural practices and not have to be “American” (read: “White”) in order to validate ourselves in this society.
Da Màu: When you write, “the Vietnamese community includes not only those who are either pro- or anti-communist, but rather a diversity of independent opinions and histories,” are you refering to the Vietnamese community that was formed by the refugees? If so, then given this common historic beginning, how has such a community become diversified?
Trâm Lê: Although many of us are refugees of the war, we did not all come to the U.S. in the same way. Some came as academics before 1975, some are Chinese-Vietnamese, some come for economic opportunities, some are Amerasian who are oppressed by both the Communist government and Vietnamese society as a whole, some came by accident (picked up by vuot bien boats along the way), some came here so young that they have no memories of Vietnam, some came when they are much older but born in VN so they did not even know another government/flag existed before the Communists took over, some have family members who fought for both sides, some fought for neither.
Even my grandparents who lived through the war at the same time have different perceptions of the war. Because my grandfather was a lieutenant colonel of the ARVN, he had to serve 13 years in re-education prison. He believes that the wives that were left behind after the men were taken to prison were weak and easily succumbed to Communist officials or soldiers who promised them a better life. Meanwhile, my grandmother had to take care of not only seven children, she had to find money to travel to visit my grandfather and prepare him food when most people were starving in the city.
Therefore, this “community” does not have one history nor one way of viewing art, politics, nor being part of this community, and it is unfair to everyone if we are all forced to have this one history or one political stance.
Da Màu: Many in the Vietnamese American community see a war going on, with the communists trying to infiltrate the overseas communities, and they, in their turn, have to defend against all the ongoing attacks. Does that justify the comunity’s inclusion or exclusion of some political beliefs?
Trâm Lê: Unfortunately, if they continue to allow only certain political beliefs to be said publicly while excluding (and censoring) other beliefs, then they have become what they hate. You can combat this “war” through education and communication, not through closing down lines of communication. During the protests at the F.O.B. II exhibition, there was a poster of the Rev. Nguyễn Văn Lý having his mouth covered by a Communist official for speaking out against the government there. I believe this is what a lot of the anti-communist groups are doing to people in the community who have different opinions from them.
If we keep blocking people from speaking freely and suffocating the community with this air of fear, then many people will continue to leave the community, particularly the younger generation who may not subscribe to the same anti-communist stance. We as a community are only 34 years old, and we need to think about sustaining ourselves for the next 100 years. Without new ideas, the community will wither and just be a place where people go to hang around, drink coffee, and complain.
I also want to make clear that when we say we want to have an “open dialogue,” we do not mean with the government in Vietnam. That statement refers to dialogue within our communities here in Orange County as well as the Vietnamese communities around the world.
Da Màu: You end your curatorial statement with “an urge to speak out fearlessly.” No joke, after all the incidents in this exhibition, have you changed you point of view on speaking out fearlessly?
Trâm Lê: So many people have come up to me to thank us for speaking out and presenting our community as more than just being anti-communist. They loved the exhibition. They loved all the talent being presented. They loved that we as a younger generation were doing something active in the community. For them, I will continue to speak out fearlessly.