An-My Lê can barely recall the Hawaiian shirt that the blond American wore when he put her into a black cargo van. Though many of the artist’s memories from the spring of 1975 bleed into one another — slanted piles of burlap sandbags encasing her bedroom wall, fallen artillery shells lining the streets near her school like bread crumbs — what has remained with her lucidly from those last few days of the 21-year war that divided her home country against itself, is the profound fear that had engulfed Saigon. The city was bracing for the Quân đội nhân dân Việt Nam, the Communist army of the North, and the Việt Cộng, the guerilla-style militant groups from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to capture the capital of Việt Nam Cộng hòa — what the United States and the rest of the Western Bloc knew as the Republic of Vietnam. Lê spent that night on the military tarmac of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base with her father and two brothers. When dawn broke, she took one last glance at the landscape through the windows of the American C-130 aircraft as it disappeared into the clouds. She was 15.
Complicated emotions of uncertainty and anger, guilt and abandonment all intersect for artists from Lê’s generation; those who are not fully Vietnamese in Vietnam nor American in America. Shrouded in war, these Vietnam-born American artists us their memories not so much as a political protest as an emotional inquiry, through the generational traumas that have plagued their families since the day they left home.
How a displaced culture can endure in America is a complicated concept for anyone to attempt to grasp. The Vietnamese diaspora is a marginalized generation who had no choice but to flee their homeland and then integrate themselves into the society of the enemy — it’s the center of a disconnect they’ve been trying to grapple with for the past five decades. And only now are Western institutions finally giving these displaced artists room to engage with these traumas.
“We never talked about it after,” says Lê, 63, who will be the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in October. She now lives in Brooklyn. After leaving Vietnam, her family was taken to Clark Air Base in the Philippines as refugees before being shuffled to Wake Island, Guam and, finally, Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps training center in Southern California that housed over 50,000 displaced Southeast Asians from April to October of 1975. After gaining U.S. sponsorship, they settled in Orange County, where they eventually reunited with her mother, one of the final evacuees from American Embassy after the fall of Saigon. “I always looked back at the experience like, ‘My God, it was nothing. Don’t even think about it.’ I felt so terribly lucky that we didn’t have to experience many of the horrors that others did. I never thought I could go back.”
American assimilation and its effect on identity has long interested Phung Huynh, 46, who left her country after the end of the war. Her parents were already refugees living in a refugee state — her mother, a descendant of Southern Chinese immigrants, and her father, a Cambodian genocide survivor — when they purchased a large fisherman’s boat in 1978 to smuggle themselves out of the southwestern port city of Rạch Giá. Beneath the rickety vessel’s deck, she and over 30 family members crowded together in silence between crates of raw fish and ice as they made their way toward a camp in Thailand. After three years in Michigan, she has lived in Los Angeles ever since. “There is a lot of inherited trauma, resentment and the feeling that we should be grateful,” says Huynh of her family’s experience.
Her 2021 series, “American Braised,” which is currently on view in the exhibition “Vietnam in Transition, 1976-Present” at the Wende Museum in Culver City, Calif., inlays imagery from her own refugee experience into glass snow globes atop cumbersome wooden bases. In one orb, specs of silver confetti float around weathered images of Vietnamese civilians climbing over one another to reach the helicopters evacuating the roof of the American Embassy during the fall of Saigon. In another, grains of snow engulf a photograph of Huynh’s first White Christmas in the United States. The souvenirs, like much of the multidisciplinary artist’s work, function as an encapsulation of her memory. They also speculate about what might have been. “What would have happened if we stayed?” asks the artist. “Who would I be if the war didn’t occur?” She still keeps a go bag with her two sons’ passports ready at all times.
Saigon-born Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who immigrated with his family to the United States in 1979 and lived in Oklahoma and Texas before settling in California, has been asking himself similar questions his whole life. The 47-year-old artist’s sculptures and moving-image works broach expatriation and the idea of returning to an unfamiliar home, something he experienced firsthand when he relocated to Ho Chi Minh City in 2004 after receiving his M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts. His first American exhibition went on view this month at the New Museum in New York. In addition to new works, the show includes a 2022 project consisting of unexploded ordnance that Nguyen, the co-founder of the artist collective the Propeller Group, came across in the Quảng Trị province of northern Vietnam. By fashioning shell fragments and salvaged bomb metal into Alexander Calder-esque mobiles tuned to 432 hertz — a frequency said to heighten perception and increase mental clarity — the artist attempts to tangibly come to terms with his home soil.
People move on by confronting the demons of their pasts, but such a resolution is not so simple for the Vietnamese Diaspora, whose memories are plagued by losses — of life, of land, of childhood. While the Việt Cộng was the fear they grew up with, much more awaited them as they crossed the Pacific to start over. As a result, many of the works on this topic leave the viewer feeling just as frozen as the artists that made them: struggling to move forward.
“I think a lot about the notion of the enemy,” says Lê, who participated in and photographed Vietnam War re-enactments across Virginia and North Carolina between 1999 to 2002. When she first returned to Vietnam in the ’90s, through a grant from her M.F.A. program at Yale, she did not do so to visit her home, which had been renamed after the Communist President Ho Chi Minh, but rather to walk atop the enemy’s foreign terrain. The artist found herself surrounded by northern Vietnamese who had had no choice but to attack their own countrymen. They had worn the same uniforms the re-enactors wore — that she wore — decades later. “It helped me understand the notion of Vietnam being an idea or a myth rather than an event. In blurring those lines, I think I found empathy.”
For nearly half a decade, Lê returned to her home country once a year, venturing further and further into what was once the unthinkable. “It was extraordinary,” she recalls particularly of its capital, Hanoi, where her mother grew up with relatives she never knew existed, and Thái Bình, which is known as the hometown of rice. “I felt at home [in the north] even though I had never been there.” Captured over the course of that time, Lê’s “Viêt Nam” series (1994-98) shows her attempt to reconcile her lost memories of the country’s blood-soaked soil with its contemporary landscape. In 1995, MoMA purchased a black-and-white photograph of a precarious young girl on a cầu khỉ (“monkey bridge”) crossing the Mekong River Delta, the artist’s first work to be acquired by a major art institution. This fall, that image will be joined by 17 other large-format photos from the project as part of the artist’s largest museum survey in New York. Thirty years since taking them, Lê still struggles to articulate the significance the photographs have had on her understanding of her own identity. “That culture — my culture — felt so ineffable at the time,” she says. “I had all these memories and extensions of what I had lived, what I was told I lived, but I didn’t know it. As soon as I saw the landscape, part of it made sense to me.”
But did it answer all of her questions? “No,” she says, “not at all.”