VAALA’s Artistic Exploration of “Hôme”

How do you define “home”? DiaCritic Jade Hidle suggests exploring this complex notion through The Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association’s (VAALA) new art exhibit, “Hôme.”

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Where we’re from and what home is remain universal inquiries. Literally universal. Astronomers and physicists posit that each of us has stardust in our veins, carrying fragments of our galactic home in our mortal vessels. Yet “home” is, too, rooted in Earthly, concrete realities. In the diaspora, the notion of “home” is shifting. There is, of course, the push-pull between Viet Nam and the various countries of arrival worldwide. But within those new spaces, “home” is, too an often elusive and contested, shuttling through space and time.

It feels appropriate, then, that the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association’s new art exhibit, “Hôme,” is housed in two different places—two homes.

Home

I first visited the half of the exhibit housed at the VAALA Cultural Center. Upon entering, I was pleasantly surprised that, based on the styles of and names attached to the pieces on display, the works chosen by VAALA are not limited to those by artists of Vietnamese heritage; rather, the pieces seem to represent a wide range of cultural and generational backgrounds. The diversity appears to be an effort to generate cross-cultural dialogues and forge connections between us, thereby expanding the boundaries of “home” and who is included in it. Addressing the connective thread between the individual pieces, VAALA’s preface to the exhibit explains that the works are united in their dismantling, deconstruction, and reconstruction of home as a The Wizard of Oz-like childhood ideal, which often results in finding meaning in chaos and danger where the safety of home was once believed to be. “Ultimately,” the banner reads, “every artist in this show has found a home for him or herself in being an artist, in making art and thereby creating that safe place of comfort and control for themselves—a home within a home.”

Allyson Klutenkamper's "Cups"

Allyson Klutenkamper’s “Cups”

Ranging from photographs to paintings to found art installations, the featured works of art approached the diverse manifestations of “home.” Some of these representations were expected. Several images of homelessness and dilapidated structures depict “home” as an absence or as a site of disillusionment and impossibility. Others cast spotlights on mundane objects to capture the contrived, arbitrariness of “home.” Though I wholeheartedly support these artists’ respective challenges to the mythos central to the exhibit’s concept, they did not resonate for me; they seemed to replicate familiar “artsy” takes on complex notions translated into coffee table ideas.

That said, other pieces were elliptical, interesting, and sometimes haunting. Some of these works displayed “home” as people…

Nadia Kusmajadi's "Acculturation, Laundry Rack"

Nadia Kusmajadi’s “Acculturation, Laundry Rack”

…its shifting, overlapping borders…

Doug Herbilla's untitled piece

Doug Herbilla’s untitled piece

…the ambiguity of home…

Vann Nguyen's "Imaginary Homelands--Vietnam 3"

Vann Nguyen’s “Imaginary Homelands–Vietnam 3”

…the struggles for it…

Denise Weyhrich's "Your Garage is My Home," featuring articles about migration and labor

Denise Weyhrich’s “Your Garage is My Home,” featuring articles about migration and labor

…the frailty of it all…

Roget Nguyen's "House Home/54"

Roget Nguyen’s “House Home/54”

The exhibit’s other home is in the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, located in the artists’ district of downtown Santa Ana. Given that this half of the exhibit features similar works from the same group of artists, the OCCCA gallery is a better setting in which to view the expressions of “home.” Not only is the lighting natural through the glass garage doors and skylights, and the bathroom oddly comforting in its scent of stale Pez candy, but at a deeper level this area of Santa Ana is an important space in which to meditate upon the meanings of “home.”

Robin Repp's "The Home" 7076 and 0553

Robin Repp’s “The Home” 7076 and 0553

In my experiences of Santa Ana, many neighborhoods are mixed with families of Mexican and Vietnamese descent, and that feels like “home” to me. However, as this was my first time back to the area in over a year, being there reminded me of the death of Kim Pham earlier this year, after an altercation with women of reported Mexican heritage.  The reason the individuals’ ethnicities stand out in my mind is because of the way the incident was reported, often unfairly idealizing the victim and criminalizing the Mexican women. These quick-forgotten histories speak to the complexities of representing the shared spaces of “home” and its residents.

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On the street level, downtown Santa Ana features some of the brick-and-mortared nostalgic view of what many like to believe old American cities are. (“Old” at least for Orange County.) These buildings are an amalgamation of edifices to art and law—artists’  lofts adjacent to public offices, all radiating out from the county courthouse at the center. Encounters between art and law, expression and regulation, are particularly important because Santa Ana has a large Mexican American and Chicano/a community. Given the ongoing protests regarding immigration of primarily Central American women and children at the detention center in Murrieta and other locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, “home” is for many a politically charged terrain where survival, dignity, recognition, and inclusion are a fight. In this context, VAALA’s dual exhibits point to the importance of how art will engage in these larger social discussions, as a method of education and resistance. Ultimately, meditating on “home” in this setting raises the questions: How are Americans representing “home”? Who is considered to be “home” and who is not? What do you want your “home” to look like and what kind of “home” lies in our collective future?

Jane Szabo's "Working from Home:  Napping"

Jane Szabo’s “Working from Home: Napping”

The free “Hôme” exhibit only runs until July 26th, but VAALA has upcoming events of note for local diacritics readers. On August 17th, actor Trieu Tran, who recently played Joey Phan on HBO’s The Newsroom, is doing a one-man show called Trieu Tran Unplugged based on his experiences fleeing Sai Gon and making it in Hollywood. In September, VAALA will put on Romeo and Juliet, as well as the art-based Children’s Moon Festival. Check out VAALA’s website for more info.

Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and a PhD in literature from UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review, Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.

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