By Meredith Anderson
On January 25th, local artist Trinh Mai, a second generation Vietnamese American, discussed her artwork pertaining to her family history at the University of California, San Diego. Mai began by explaining that she was always curious about her family’s history of escaping Vietnam in 1975.
“Curiosity is our spirit showing us that we need to learn more,” Mai said.
In an attempt to learn more about the Vietnam War and its effect on her family, Mai began creating art to tell their story. In 2013, Mai created her “Begins with Tea” series. This collection features portraits of 52 of Mai’s family members encapsulated by used tea bags and embellished with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. Mai explained that stumbling across old family photos in her Grandma’s house “invoked this need to know more [about the people depicted]” and inspired her to honor each person by creating their own tea bag.
While working on this series, Mai had her grandmother, Bà Ngoại, save her used tea bags from the afternoons that they spent sharing family memories. Additionally, she used Vietnamese ingredients, such as saffron and dried noodles, taken from her grandmother’s pantry to symbolize the traditional Vietnamese recipes passed down through her family for generations. When Mai finished the portraits, she shared them with her family. She said that her art “opened up this channel for conversation” within her family, thereby allowing her to learn more about her family.
Then, in 2014, Mai’s beloved grandmother passed away. Mai recounted her experience and explained that after her grandmother’s death, she came across an identification card with her fingerprints. This inspired Mai to use fingerprints in her art. Mai described how in less than an hour, she created Bà Ngoại (Grandmother), a fingerprint portrait of her grandmother.
“When inspiration calls, it moves so swiftly,” Mai said.
She explained that art is a spiritual practice that she has been able to use to heal. In addition to using art for self-healing, she employed this technique on a larger scale to benefit entire communities. Mai’s installation Quiet is an example of this. Quiet was inspired by the letters Mai found at the University of California, Irvine library from Vietnamese families pleading for their lost loved ones to be found. These letters contained photos of individuals, mostly children, who likely never saw their families again.While reading these letters, Mai reflected on the fact that they had been filed away in boxes and virtually forgotten. Mai was so dismayed by this thought that she decided to undertake a project in honor of these lost individuals.
The Vietnamese believe that “if [someone] is not given a proper funeral, their soul can’t rest,” she explained, which is why Mai worked to emulate a traditional funeral. Mai began painting their portraits on large sheets of white cotton fabric, symbolizing the mourning bands worn during Vietnamese funerals.
Although this installation was mainly intended for the Vietnamese community, others experienced healing as well. Mai recounted a conversation that she had with the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, who explained that many American military families resent the war because it took husbands and fathers away. The woman continued to explain that after hearing stories of Vietnamese refugees and the losses they are still suffering that “[she] will no longer recount her memories [of the war], but instead will recount [theirs].” Viewing Mai’s work opened this woman’s eyes to the trauma Vietnamese refugees endured and caused her to see her husband’s involvement in the war as a “worthy cause.” This interaction clearly demonstrates the profound influence art can have on shaping the perspective of individuals.
Throughout the course of her presentation, Mai used her family’s story to explain the impact that art and creativity have had on herself and others. Art in of itself is a form of storytelling that uses mixed media rather than words to convey a message. As Mai’s work proves, art can be therapeutic and spark conversations that would not otherwise be had. Specifically, Mai’s story illuminates the impact of the Vietnam War on those who carry on its legacy today.
Photo by Trinh Mai