Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Wild Western Lesbian Feminist Asian American Artist: Hanh Thi Pham's Expatriate Consciousness and the Unpacking of Identities

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Wild Western Lesbian Feminist Asian American Artist: Hanh Thi Pham's Expatriate Consciousness and the Unpacking of Identities

Article excerpt

... it is Asian Americans themselves who ate turning back to see what was left behind, not only in history, but in their childhoods or in the present lives of relatives in the homelands or the Chinatowns or Japantowns of this country. (1)

Some scholars place immigrant artists in the category of "alien," whereas others use them to debate racial(ized) politics. Additionally, those immigrants who self-identify as queer often open themselves up to rejection from both the mainstream and immigrant communities. (2) As Lucy Lippard observes in the above epigraph, the subjectivity of the self, precarious as it may be, was mined for source material by artists of the eighties. According to curator Margo Machida, Asian artists in America, especially if immigrants, navigate a continually shifting terrain of class, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality at work on their identity formation and their art. (3) One may inquire, when an Asian American artist like Hanh Thi Pham turns to look back, does she find that not only is her individual identity fragmented, but that she herself is now post-identity? (4) The answer can be found in Pham's Expatriate Consciousness (1991-1992, Fig. 1) with its multi-layered representation of her identities as artist, daughter, immigrant, lesbian, and Vietnam War era survivor that reveal visually her fragmented self. In translating postmodern tenets to a visual form, Pham in the 1980s and 1990s elided various aspects of what traditionally has been termed as identity--ethnic ancestry; biological gender, sexuality, and class affiliation--demonstrating that the idea of a monolithic master identity is a myth. (5)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

While cultural studies offer a broad theoretical context for Pham's oeuvre, the specifics and depth of her work are revealed when examining trends in lesbian art. Harmony Hammond's Lesbian Art in America delineates key issues for lesbian artists working in the United States and Canada from the 1970s to the present. (6) Particularly helpful is Hammond's tracing of historical developments not only of style, but of form and theme; her chronological account allows one to see Pham's work as symptomatic of the fragmented and sometimes opposing forces of postmodern identity formation revealed through aesthetics. (7) The features of Hammond's argument of relevance to Pham's corpus can be summarized as follows: many lesbian artists seek to present an individualized statement; critiques of mainstream definitions of the family are paramount to these women; a deconstruction of the stereotypes of race is often seen in the work of lesbian artists of color; and a queering of sexual identity is common to many lesbian-produced works. (8)

For Pham and other lesbian artists of color, the predominance of one facet of the self over the other waxes and wanes depending on circumstance. In order to understand the most fundamental aspects of her oeuvre, it is crucial to note how her Vietnam War and immigrant experiences shaped her early work and inform the signifiers of her later pieces. (9) Therefore, one must examine the chronology of Pham's image-making to better interpret Expatriate Consciousness. Pham's intent to grapple with her ambiguous relationship to her homeland and her adopted country is fully realized in Along the Street of Knives (1985). The series consists of eight color photographs that, in addition to establishing a fundamental compositional device for Pham--multiple photographic images arranged into a shattered, vaguely discursive format--are intimately connected to her perceptions of the consequences of the Vietnam War not only for Vietnamese people in general, but for her personally. (10)

Numbers one and two, titled Evening Stroll/Night Patrol and Reconnaissance (Figs. 2-3), respectively, set the stage for Pham's personal concern over how Vietnamese-Western relations were built on deception, intrigue, and mutual distrust brought about by years of Vietnamese colonial subjugation. …

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