Zoe Berg, Senior Photography

During her time as a History of Art major, Ivy Vuong ’23 rarely saw artwork by Vietnamese artists represented in museums or her courses.

She noticed that depictions of Vietnamese people often reduced the complexity of their stories and identities and that dominant historical narratives relating to the Vietnam War minimized or distorted the experiences of the Vietnamese people. Through her ongoing exhibition Băng Qua Nước: Across Land, Across Water — which opened on Oct. 26 at Creative Arts Workshop —  she aims to uplift the art of Vietnamese artists, showcase the stories of Vietnamese immigrant communities in the United States, and prompt meaningful discussion.

“I hope that people will take away a better understanding of what home can mean for themselves, for others, for the Vietnamese community, and for the large immigrant and refugee community in New Haven,” Vuong said. “I hope they experience the joy held in this exhibit and feel like they can connect in some way, even if they have different experiences.” 

The exhibit features the work of four Vietnamese diasporic artists — Thuan Vu, Quyên Trương, Thu Tran and Antonius-Tín Bui. The exhibited artwork span a wide range of media, from acrylic and oil paintings on canvas and wood panels to a floor-to-ceiling installation piece and a short film by Bui. 

The exhibit is sectioned into three themes – Nơi Dây Nơi Dó: Here Nor/And There, Cùng Nhau/Together, and Sự mất và sự trả lại: Loss and Return/Redemption.

“Ivy did a really masterful job, choosing three themes that would not only resonate with Vietnamese Americans, but also most of the migrant, immigrant and refugee communities in the United States,” Bui said.  “Unfortunately our experiences of forced assimilation, displacement and erasure aren’t exceptional when considering US militarism and imperialism.”

The opening reception for the exhibit featured remarks by Creative Arts Workshop executive director Anne Coates, Vuong and artist Thuan Vu. After Coates detailed the history and programming of the Creative Arts Workshop, Vuong recounted her reasons for curating the exhibition, including her family’s experience immigrating to the United States.

At the reception, Vuong shared that her mother and father were “boat people,” a term used to describe refugees who left Vietnam after the 1975 Fall of Saigon. Vuong’s statements were followed by statements from Vu, who emphasized that while members of the Vietnamese diaspora share several threads that bind them together, they also harbor varied and diverse experiences. 

“When we talk about the Vietnamese American experience, that trip over to America took place in many different ways in different times,” Vu said. “We are not just Vietnamese or American … we are all of those things at the same time and yet we have to wrestle with our own finitude at the same time.” 

According to Vuong, her desire to curate the exhibition stemmed from the underrepresentation of Vietnamese artists and histories in museums. Despite the importance of these narratives, Vuong noticed how these stories were rarely told outside of Vietnamese communities. After encountering the work of Tiffany Chung, a Vietnamese American artist, at the Smithsonian, and sharing the work with her mother, she began brainstorming ways to use her art history background to uplift the art of Vietnamese diasporic artists. 

This summer, during an internship at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, Vuong came across an open call for curatorial submissions for the 2022 Open Source Festival by Artspace New Haven. Soon after, she received a message that her proposal had been selected and she began reaching out to artists and planning for the exhibition. 

Through the process of curating the exhibition, Vuong said that she has “worn about ten different hats,” honing her abilities in marketing and promotion, graphic design, and exhibition setup. 

The artists featured in the exhibition drew on familial memories, explorations of cultural identities, and personal artistic journeys to create their artwork. According to Trương, her artistic process consists of “thinking about how to make a two-dimensional piece live and breathe in a way that it should if it was three dimensional.” One of her featured pieces, Names like Fireworks, explores her father’s relationship with his name and identity, and was inspired by her love for the stories behind people’s names. 

Bui said that they created their dance narrative film, Upon Skin, Upon Stone, after losing their grandmother. The film was their first collaboration with their sibling, Theresa-Xuan Bui. The film synthesizes Vietnamese Catholic chanting, poetry and narrative dance performed at three Vietnam Memorial sites in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

“I was thinking a lot about what it means to lose an entire generation to lose access to their stories, all the libraries that they embody,” Bui said, adding that the process of creating the piece was “transformative and cathartic” for them and their sibling. 

Vu noted the significance of the exhibition, underscoring that the exhibition was the “first Vietnamese American art show, for Vietnamese artists, curated by a Vietnamese American curator, who happens to also be female.” 

According to Vuong, while there have been exhibitions that have showcased some Vietnamese artists, she had never seen a group exhibition solely featuring Vietnamese artists. Additionally, she added that most exhibitions featuring Vietnamese artists tend to be located on the West Coast, while her exhibition features Connecticut-based Vietnamese artists. 

Even though the exhibit focuses on the Vietnamese diasporic experience, Vuong observed that the themes of the exhibition resonated with a wide range of viewers, a sentiment echoed by Vu.

“It’s so universal. The human experience of what happens after there’s been trauma,” Vu said. “What happens after there’s been a disaster. What happens after there has been joy.”

While the exhibition was originally scheduled to run through Nov. 26, the dates have been extended to Jan 20. In the future, Vuong hopes to expand the exhibition, potentially curating an exhibition as part of the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in 2025.

Creative Arts Workshop is located at 80 Audubon St.