The Minneapolis Institute of Art will host an event curated by Lao poet, playright, and activist Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay (a review of her children’s bookWhen Everything was Everything was previously published on this blog). We asked Saymoukda to write about the experience of curation and the event that highlights what inclusivity of the Southeast Asian diaspora can look like.
On December 6th, 2019, more than a dozen Southeast Asian artists and creatives working in film, puppetry, comedy, the culinary arts, tapestry, printmaking, children’s lit, and healing will welcome the community to their house party…at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA)—one of the oldest (founded in 1883) and largest arts institutions in the Twin Cities (Minnesota).
When MIA invited me to curate an evening that would celebrate Southeast Asian arts and culture as part of their Open House series, I had to consider several important things:
1 — A prominent Lao American artist’s protest of the current exhibit, “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975.” Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibit presents “nearly 100 works by 58 of the period’s most visionary, provocative artists.” MIA created a Companion Exhibition, “Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views on the American War” which featured “drawings, textiles, video, photography, and installations made by artists from the Southeast Asian diaspora who have been deeply engaged with the impact and legacy of the American War in Vietnam….” What was missing from the Companion Exhibit was the inclusion of Laotian artists of ethnic Mien, Khmu, Lao, and Yao backgrounds.
2 — MIA’s poor history of engaging the Southeast Asian/American community year-round. I was informed that although the Open House series is not connected to the current exhibit, the December Open House event is inspired by it. That makes sense to me. But how do we work with institutions to get them to bake communities into their mission and programming year-round—not just when our community is the flavor of the month?
3 — MIA’s willingness to do better.
4 — My capacity to take on curatorial work.
After discussing the four points above with MIA, I agreed to curate a one-night museum-wide takeover of Southeast Asian anything that I wanted.
But what does a one-night “takeover” of the MIA by Southeast Asian/American artists and creatives look like? I wanted the evening to feel celebratory, unapologetic, and unexpected. In thinking about MIA’s Companion Exhibit and the dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of Southeast artists living and creating in Minnesota who identify as former refugees and the children of former refugees of the American/Vietnam/Secret/Undocumented war—I was aching to administer a sort-of-but-not-quite Accompanying Exhibit to MIA’s Companion Exhibit. So often when people imagine Southeast Asian arts and culture, they see traditional dance and cultural dress, calligraphy and folktales, eggrolls and paper lanterns. These are all dope staples of our people, don’t get me wrong, but what about the Southeast Asian creatives who (re)imagine and flip the script on narratives of displacement/loss/trauma and traditional-ish artforms like poetry, puppetry, storytelling, and paper crafts? Is there space for cultural futurists who also happen to be creative cultural documentarians? It’s important that we highlight Southeast Asian artist-responders. It’s absolutely necessary that we signal boost Southeast Asian artist-futurists.
But, but, but most importantly for the one-night takeover: I wanted the space to feel familiar like home. Like a house party at your rich-ish auntie’s house. Like, when you open the door you are greeted with the smell of rubber wafting from piles and piles of shoes. Like, even before you could remove your shoes you’re asked, Have you eaten? And you’re guided into the kitchen where the aroma of pungent hits your eyeballs. And you see that there are participatory stations throughout the house: karaoke in the basement, gambling circle with the grandmas on the living room floor, drinks with the uncles in the garage, video games with the tweens in one of the bedrooms, and gossip…I mean…storytelling with the aunties at the dining table. You have choices. You may not actively participate in 5/5 of the activities offered but it feels cozy to sit next to your favorite cousin as they badly sing a Lynda Trang Đài cover of a Madonna song.
Open House: Welcome Home
Friday, December 6
Minneapolis Institute of Art
Free and Open to all
Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay is a Lao American writer. Her work focuses on creating tools and spaces for the amplification of refugee voices through poetry, theater, and experimental cultural production. Her plays have been presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Theater Mu, and Theater Unbound. She’s a Playwrights’ Center and Theater Mu fellow in playwriting, a Loft Literary Center fellow in poetry (2018) and children’s literature (2019), a Twin Cities Media Alliance fellow in public art, and an Aspen Ideas Bush Foundation scholar. She’s received grants from the Jerome Foundation, Bush Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Forecast Public Art, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, MN State Arts Board, and elsewhere. Her work has been mentioned by the NY Times, Mpls/St. Paul Magazine, Mn Original, Minnesota Public Radio and more. She holds a Master in Liberal Studies degree and co-hosted a podcast on Minnesota Public Radio.