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MIA Erasure, My Reflection

To much fanfare, the exhibit Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 opened in Minnesota at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this month and will run until January 5th, 2020. It’s billed as a way to look at “the innovative ways artists talked back, often in the streets and other public venues. The exhibition presents nearly 100 works by 58 of the period’s most visionary, provocative artists.” For Southeast Asians of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian descent, and active military veterans, you can even see the exhibit for free. It’s been a long time since I’ve been given free admission to an art exhibit to witness the complete erasure of my community’s perspective and reactions to the Vietnam War, the Secret War, and the Killing Fields.

For Minnesotans, who arguably have one of the most deeply tangled relationships with Southeast Asia than almost any other US state, this ought to be a stirring and profound exhibit: one filled with so many heartbreaking memories and reflections on themes and issues addressed over four decades ago, still resonating into the present. 

One would think an exhibit like this is vital to bring to the public as we engage with new wars abroad, the challenges of immigration and ICE efforts at deporting Southeast Asians in record numbers, challenges to the environment, and the rise of open racism. Now more than ever. 

I regret that as a Lao Minnesotan, in a state with the 3rd largest Lao refugee population in the country; I can tell my elders,family, and youth they can just stay home, yet again. There is nothing to see here that acknowledges our journey that began 45 years ago.

What follows is strictly my personal opinion, and not necessarily the views of my fellow artists or my community in diaspora. After 20 years personally advocating for the reflection of the Lao and Southeast Asian refugee voices in Minnesotan cultural institutions, one comes to accept that the opinion of a Lao poet and cup of coffee typically gets you… a cup of coffee. So it goes.

For context, I saw the main exhibit, Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 twice this August during its closing days at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

I was in town at the request of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to present at the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival with my fellow Laomagination artists from Minnesota. We gave a performance previewing our upcoming 2020 exhibit reflecting on 45 years of the Lao diaspora, and had time to catch this exhibit and Tiffany Chung’s installation VietnamPast is Prologue

We went knowing that the exhibition would likely exclude any mention of the war for Laos that displaced nearly 232,000+ Laotians and 260,000+ Hmong to the US over the last 4 decades. We were pleasantly surprised Laos was at least mentioned as a tangent at Tiffany Chung’s exhibit examining her father’s experience as a South Vietnamese soldier during a key battle in his life. It was a marginal relief compared to Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, where, artwork after artwork, not a word or image could be found tangibly addressing the Lao experience.

We were instead presented images upon images of non-Southeast Asians wringing their hands without ever engaging actual Southeast Asians about how they felt. So much for no stories about us without us.

This has been a very busy year for many of our Lao artists. We recently concluded the 20-year retrospective of the Laomagination movement around the world in North Minneapolis at New Rules, and traveled nationally to present excerpts of Laomagination 45 at events such as the first Southeast Asian Graduate Studies Conference in Riverside, California, venues such as the Big Car Collective in Indianapolis, and presentations in Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Cleveland. We even demonstrated our work at the science fiction convention CONvergence in July. This Monday, we just returned from the Matatu Storytelling Festival in Oakland, California where we had a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd there to hear about the Lao diaspora in Minnesota.

So you can only imagine what it was like for me walking into Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975, in my hometown for the third time.

People warned me not to flip out as I went first thing in the morning on October 1st. I was filled with trepidation, but was trying to keep an open mind. The curators had ample opportunity to address the omissions of the Lao experience in the main exhibit. It would surely not have been so difficult to include a line acknowledging that in 1973 the US secret bombing of Laos ended after 9 years. A policy that left 1/3 of our homeland contaminated with cluster bombs (many manufactured in Minnesota) to this day

The original exhibit in Washington DC decided there was nothing interesting about mentioning the time the CIA, with the support of the US State Department, raised America’s largest covert army from Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Iu Mien, Lue and other cultures in the Laotian highlands to fight North Vietnamese troops delivering supplies and reinforcements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, secretly transforming Long Tieng into an airbase that was also the 2nd largest city in Laos by the time the conflict ended.

I was naively optimistic the exhibit would surely address that experience when it arrived in Minnesota. Surely, someone would stand up and point out our journey and we wouldn’t have to fight erasure such as the recent incident in California where Southeast Asian history was going to be taught in the classrooms finally, except for Lao history, until someone spoke up.

To mitigate criticisms of the exclusion of Southeast Asian voices in the exhibit, the MIA opted to include a supplemental exhibit entitled Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views on the American War that contained art by artists of “Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese heritage who regularly address the legacy of war in their work.” As someone who actually brought the Legacies of War Refugee Nation: Twin Cities exhibit to Minneapolis at Intermedia Arts in 2010, I was very hopeful. I walked in to see the work of Bao Phi and several other people I’ve known over the years. And not one work of visual art by a Lao Minnesotan, or a single Lao American, or a single Lao person in diaspora. Not one.

The Hmong artists represented are doing double duty as the Hmong and Laotian artists, for this exhibit. That’s a big burden to shoulder, and even then, only a partial aspect of the whole story that deserves to be represented.

Apparently, it was too much to bother asking any of our award-winning artists who live in Minnesota to participate, such as Bush Artist Fellow Malichansouk Kouanchao, or the NEA Heritage Fellow, weaver Bounxou Chanthraphone, who was one of the first recipients of the Bush Enduring Vision Award. Aloun Phoulavan, also excluded, teaches art in the St. Paul Public School system, has had his art displayed at the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and numerous community exhibits across the state.

There wasn’t one piece by artists such as Chantala Kommanivanh, Sisavanh Phoutavong Houghton, Loy Khambay Correa, Sayon Syprasoeuth, Vongduane Manivong, Sompaseuth Chounlamany. or Nor Sanavongsay; all creators who are regularly presenting work in public that specifically engages the Lao diaspora and the war. Many of them have roots in the Midwest. This isn’t even a complete list of who could have been included.

A digital display monitor in the exhibit means it would have been possible to include video works such as the recent award-winning Lao American documentary Origin Story following Kulap Vilaysack’s journey from Minnesota to Laos to find her true roots and heritage, featured in the Star Tribune literally last month. Thavisouk Phrasavath’s documentary Nerakhoon: The Betrayal was nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy, and marked its 10th anniversary last year and is still being taught in Asian American Studies classes in Minnesota at the U of M. Missed opportunity upon missed opportunity.

I’m going to refrain from calling it curatorial malpractice, but I won’t be recommending this exhibit to any of my fellow Lao in Minnesota. We can and must do better, as we build a peaceful legacy for the next generation to help one another value the stories within ourselves; those journeys and sacrifices we faced, even against the constant efforts of erasure by our peers and neighbors. 

Tens years ago I became the first Lao American to be honored with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature for Poetry. In my statement to the community, I said  “There are stories and poems I can’t wait to share with you all in celebration of our journey together. Change is possible only through the free expression of the many voices of a diverse people. It is one of the true joys of life,” further adding “I recognize those who gave so much around the world to bring us to this point. Some names we know, so many we do not. I thank those voices, those souls, and add my own to our collective story of freedom and dreamers. And to those who come upon these words of mine: Write. Create. Add your voice to this magnificent tale.”

To all of my students, I ask you to take heart. As heartbreaking as this exclusion is, it is not the end. But it is a lesson. And we must keep reaching for the best within ourselves and share our journeys with courage and relentless persistence. Make the spaces you want to see. Keep hope.


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