In the fall of 2019, we had the honor of premiering “Sự Hồi Tưởng,” an immersive altar and ritual performance space, at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco for “City of Souls”, that year’s edition of their annual Dìa De Los Muertos exhibition. “City of Souls,” an exhibition on display from October 12th to November 8th, asked artists to meditate on San Francisco’s rapidly changing landscape to answer the question: Who are the ancestors we need to call in to help fight for the soul of the city and what kind of future can we collectively envision?
At this time, I was deeply reflecting upon my mother, Mai Do, and her story of coming to North America as one of the Thuyền Nam or Boat People. Leaving her home and family behind, she fled the communist regime of Vietnam alone at the age of 24. She was crammed into a small fishing boat with over 100 people, with hopes of crossing the South China Sea to either Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. After one and a half days at sea, she and her companions found themselves stranded when their boat’s engine stopped working. Days passed, as she waited to die and join the many others who had risked the perilous journey before her, claimed by storms, disease, starvation, dehydration, or pirates. However, fate would have a different hand for her. On the fifth day, a French trading vessel en route to the Philippines came across their boat and ferried them to the refugee camp there. She eventually landed in Canada and I came to be born four years later. She was able to sponsor the rest of her family when I was eight years old.
My collaborator and co-artist, Giang Trinh has a similar family story. At the time of the exhibit, she was 30 years old, the same age at which her mother, Nga Phan, fled Vietnam. It took her three tries before successfully fleeing on a small fishing boat with 66 other people. Like my mother, she was left waiting in limbo as her boat drifted along. There was not enough food and she had to steel herself, as Taiwanese pirates were raiding nearby boats. Thankfully, her boat evaded the pirates and was eventually rescued by a larger boat and she was taken to Pulau Bidong (“Hell Isle”), a refugee camp in Malaysia. She spent two years in the refugee camp struggling with loneliness and missing her home, family, and friends. In that time, she spent her days attending English school in the mornings, volunteering in the afternoon, and studying to be a hairdresser at night. Her now husband, Le Trinh eventually found Nga, after seven years of separation, and sponsored her to Canada.
Many of the Boat People were not so fortunate as our mothers. According to the UNHRC, an estimated 200,000-400,000 Boat People died at sea. Other wide ranging estimates are that 10-70 percent of Boat People did not survive their journey. For us to exist, to be alive in this time, we felt a deep calling to honor these lives lost, to grieve these futures and lineages cut short, and to bring forth a remembrance through our bodies. Although those who died at sea were not our blood relatives, we still consider them our ancestors, as the journey of the Thuyền Nam is so intimately linked to who we are. For these lost ancestors, we wanted to create a space that was warm, inviting, and beautiful. We wanted to create a space that would make them feel special.
Connecting with the central question posed by the “City of Souls” exhibition—Who are the ancestors we need to call in to help fight for the soul of the city and what kind of future can we collectively envision?—we also felt an urgency to link our mothers’ stories and those of the Thuyền Nam to the current crisis at our southern border and the plight of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. Meeting either of our mothers, many people would not perhaps realize they went through such a dangerous journey themselves to arrive here as refugees. This is probably the same for many people we cross paths with everyday and yet the refugee story is such an integral part of the American story. We wanted the altar to center these narratives, to be a space that invited the viewer to reflect on what it is to be a refugee, to leave everything you love behind and risk your life in hopes of a better future, and ultimately to be called to compassionate action in the present moment.
Harkening to Vietnamese tradition, our altar would pay homage to traditional ancestor altars, but with our own artistic interpretation. Our altar was constructed completely from all white elements—white being the Vietnamese color of grieving and also allowing its surfaces to be a blank canvas . Using projection mapping, the entire altar and its enclosing walls were completely bathed in a looping ocean visualscape, inviting the viewer into stillness as the waves traveled along the floor, up the altar and its walls. These visuals were accompanied by a soundscape of singing bowls honoring the dead with the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh periodically layering over the tones, reminding all present that the dead never truly die, but only change form. I had little experience with projectors before this project, let alone any experience with projection mapping, so the technical aspect of the installation was a huge learning curve, but as with most art, it is about saying yes to inspiration first and figuring out the details later.
The installation also contained a total of 400,000 black marks, divided between the floor and interpretive ancestor photos, to symbolically honor the up to 400,000 Boat People who died at sea. Oftentimes, we hear such numbers in passing and do not grasp their gravity, but we wanted this number and its sheer weight to be truly felt by ourselves and the viewer. Each tick was painted by hand—a small act acknowledging its representation not of a statistic, but a life—the differences and imperfections in each tick reflecting the individuality of each life. It was countless sessions of several hours late into the night over weeks between Giang and I, as we balanced our service industry jobs and other artistic projects with taking the time to remember. To do this was a spiritual initiation for us, processing such a massive loss of life. Feeling it in our bodies, especially the hands, it took its physical toll. Giang, painting nearly 300,000 marks on her own, suffered a repetitive strain injury of her thumb in the process, which fortunately healed quickly after the process was completed. In the finished altar, the marks would first appear to be a patterned floor, but upon a closer look would reveal their nature as marks made by hand on canvas.
Acknowledging ourselves as the embodiment of our parents’ hopes and the collective hopes of the Thuyền Nam, it was crucial for us to activate the altar through embodied practice in some way. As a dancer and performance artist, I initially thought to engage in a performance ritual for the opening and closing nights of the exhibition, as a way to welcome and bid farewell to the Thuyền Nam respectively, bringing the body itself as an offering. Studying Vietnamese mourning rituals, I recalled how my grandmother observed the traditional 100 days of mourning after my grandfather passed. She visited the temple each day without fail. Inspired by her devotion, I committed to coming in each day for the duration of the exhibition and making an offering of movement to the altar. Additionally, Giang would cook vegetarian dishes every Saturday to add to the altar’s food offerings and we would host a community meal, inviting gallery attendees to sit with us and share in the offerings to our ancestors.
After an intense week of ten-hour days installing and troubleshooting in the gallery, the altar was complete and the opening night was upon us. I had a custom áo trắng, another homage to Vietnamese tradition, made for me by Mary Hogue of Mission Praxis, to wear as a ceremonial garment for the opening performance ritual and my movement offerings in the weeks to follow. Giang brought beautiful flower arrangements for the altar along with a plethora of snacks from the Asian market as food offerings. Rolled wafers, lychee jellies, melon gummies, shrimp crackers—we had our bases covered. The wave of emotions was palpable the entire day, as I felt the Thuyền Nam walking with me. I would find my tears flowing earlier that day as well as during the opening performance ritual, when I poured tea for one of my elders, Hang Le To, who was in attendance.
The opening ritual was originally scheduled to be only 30 minutes, but once it had started, it took on a life of its own. It ended up being two and a half hours; spurts of energetic expenditure flowing into pauses of stillness and other times, repetitive gestures, as if I was being thrown about by the sea itself. My body and I had only one role to play—to channel the energies present. I was visited by multiple guests—their physicalities taking residence within my body, one at a time. Spirits of women, men, and children. I was tapping into collective memory as I felt their suffering, their fear, their sorrow, allowing their emotions and experiences to flow through my body and disperse themselves through movement. I remember my body at one point, taking on disjointed shapes reflecting the claustrophobia that one man had felt. At another point, I found myself visited by a young woman, my hands compelled to rub my face repeatedly, as she smudged dirt and oil across her face, in hopes of not being abducted during pirate attacks. At yet another point, I found myself visited by a mother and then her baby. These spirits were able to feel witnessed, remembered, and held within my body and when they left, I felt a sense of peace wash over me much like a gentle ocean wave. The ceremony concluded with me clearing the space with this sense of peace and laying the food offerings into bowls arranged at the table for the ancestors, calling them to sit with us.
Over the duration of the exhibit, the communion with ancestors continued daily with the movement offerings. Every day would be different. Some days I would find myself channeling more spirits, who were visiting the altar, in my body. Other days would be me more preparing the space and performing for the ancestors as they came to collect their offerings. And of course, there was daily maintenance of the altar—sweeping, straightening, changing the flowers. The remembrance was in the action much like how I would come to understand as an adult that love in Vietnamese families is often more about the action than the words. Making a practice of dedicated remembrance was spiritually fulfilling, as I intentionally took time even in the busiest of days between daytime rehearsals and my evening service job, to move and be with these lost ancestors.
For the closing night of the exhibition, Giang made delicious rau câu khuôn in both pandan and coffee varieties as a sweet farewell to the spirits of the Thuyền Nam and I performed my final offering of movement. The next day was de-install and as we were taking down the altar, we had time to reflect on what this entire undertaking had meant to us. For me, it helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the resilience and richness of my Vietnamese American identity. Growing up, our family did not participate in many Vietnamese cultural traditions and we spoke English at home. In retrospect, I can see both as efforts for us to assimilate for better opportunity. On the opening night, before going into the gallery to perform the opening ritual, I looked in the mirror and saw myself in my áo trắng, and in that moment, I had never felt more Vietnamese and connected with my lineage. For Giang, the piece brought her closer to her mother, giving her a much better understanding of who she is, why she is the way that she is, her way of raising her children and her logic behind everything. For both of us, we wished we had these understandings when we were younger. Perhaps we would have empathized and handled many situations with our parents better, knowing what we know now. Creating this piece, we truly recognized the resilience of the Vietnamese people, linking their stories with larger global narrative of human migration, and hopefully increasing the empathy in the world for the plight of the refugee.
Special thanks goes out to Kimberley Arteche, Lenora Lee, Genny Lim, Saki Noguchi, August Sage, Elaine Nguyen, Drea Murillo, and Rich Trapani along with Carolina Quintanilla, Rio Yañez, and the SOMArts staff for their contributions in making this project happen.
About the Author & Artists
Johnny Huy Nguyen is a first generation Vietnamese American multidisciplinary artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been creating work since 2011. Centering his practice on the body, he weaves together dance, text, ritual, and performance art to navigate the intersections between the personal and political.
Drawing from a multifaceted movement practice informed by fluency in multiple forms, including a strong foundation in street dance (Black vernacular dance), his artistic vision is to activate dialogue, healing, and action in ways that are raw, vulnerable, and honest. johnnyhuynguyen.com
Giang Trinh (born 1989) is a Canadian-born artist now living in San Francisco, California whose work is based on creating experiences, emotions, and awareness. Her work is site-specific and has been exhibited in the US and Canada. giangtrinh.com