Curator Loredana Paracciani interviews Abdul Abdullah and Pao Houa Her, two of the artists featured in the group exhibition Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Loredana Paracciani: Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia is a group exhibition of contemporary art from Southeast Asia that considers the recent and ongoing movement of people within and away from the region since the Vietnam War, as well as its related aspects of migration, displacement, return, and hybridity. In this exhibition, both of you have presented photographic works; Abdul, you presented the series Coming to Terms, and, Pao, you presented Hmong Veterans—Attention series. In both series, the use of the body that performs to the camera is very important in signalling a sense of depersonalization. Can you tell us more about how you negotiate this performative component in your photographic works, and if this is something that informs your practice throughout?
Abdul Abdullah: When I am working with photography I think about the composition and the staging pretty literally in a theatrical sense. My subjects (including myself) are actors in a performance, and the quality of their acting determines how successful an idea is communicated. My images are contrived in the sense that they are obviously performed. Any glimmer of documentary photography quickly and deliberately falls away. I hope my audience engages with the work by engaging with the subject. This reciprocal relationship for me is essential.
Pao Houa Her: With my Attention series, these men and the uniform that they wear become a performance and I say this because they only put the uniform on when there is a community event or a funeral that requires these Vietnam War veterans to be present. The act of putting on the uniform is a performance—the camera witnesses the performance and documents it. Also in general in my practice, because the camera I use is such a big and heavy camera (Pentax 645Z and/or large-format camera), I find that people are always aware of its existence, so in a way they are always performing for the camera. The camera records a truth that may not always be the truth. For instance, the way we use social media: Instagram is a weird space and for a long time I’ve been trying to navigate it. How do I use that platform? Who is my audience? Who should be my targeted audience? I find that performance plays a huge role in the world of instagram and other social media platforms.
Loredana: Let’s talk about alienation and hybridity, which are very relevant to your respective series that are featured in the exhibition. In your works, your subjects seem to be out of place where they are located, particularly in the Attention series where the veterans’ expressions betray a sense of alienation and of “not belonging.” Similarly, the monkey mask in Coming to Terms and the monkey itself speak to a sense of otherness and hybridity. Can you elaborate further, perhaps from an autobiographical and artistic standpoint, on what it means to you and your practice to belong or not belong to a society or community?
Abdul: Being a young Muslim who resides and grew up in what is broadly understood as “the West,” I feel my formative experience has been overshadowed by the “War on Terror.” I had just become a teenager when 9/11 happened and for me it felt like overnight Muslims in Australia became the “bad guy” in the popular imagination. Personally it felt like the perception of Muslim went from general biases against migrant minorities to existential threat. In addition to this broad sense of alienation, being part of a family that didn’t always prescribe to the aspirations and ideals of the small Muslim communities we were a part of contributed to that isolation. I felt like I was part of a generation of young Muslims in Australia who didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere.
Pao Houa Her: As a Hmong person in Middle America it has always been perplexing to Americans because 1. They don’t know who or what Hmong is. 2. The landscape and climate is nothing like that of Laos so when I tell people in the Midwest that I’m Hmong from Laos, I always get a confused look and usually the next question that comes out of people’s mouth is, “Why Minnesota? It’s so cold here.” But not only that, having been in Laos then raised in America has been especially hard because I feel stuck in the in-between. I don’t really belong anywhere. I’m not American enough and not Hmong enough, and I guess for me that has always been my struggle.
Loredana: Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia is held in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. As you know, besides its vibrant art and cultural scene, Chiang Mai is one of the main border areas in Thailand that hosts several refugee camps that have sheltered countless refugees from neighboring countries, mostly Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, during and after the Vietnam War. The fact that the exhibition takes place in this area highlights the relevance of the geopolitical border as a physical divide. In your works, what does the border, not only as a political but also as a cultural and religious divide, mean to you?
Abdul: In this particular series I hope to acknowledge and interrogate the negative and often monstrous perception that I have felt people have had of me as a young Muslim in Australia. In the last federal election there were over a dozen political parties running for office whose primary platform was an opposition to Muslims and Islam. Perhaps without being conscious of the fact, the people perpetuating these ideas are contributing to a long, uninterrupted history of the maligning and dehumanization of the colonized other. To justify the continued control and seizure of land, labor and resources, those who are victim to this behavior need to be portrayed as if they somehow deserve it. In these works I’m trying to reconcile the differences between perceptions, projections, and realities.
Pao Houa Her: In my work, the border becomes a metaphor. The border allows for Southeast Asian folks to understand the nuances that might be lost to Westerners. As a family fleeing Laos, the border for me also holds tangible implications. The second refugee camp my parents and I were placed in is called Chiang Khan. It’s not far from Chiang Mai, and Chiang Mai was actually where I first underwent surgery for my leg due to polio. My dad tells this story about how he went with me to the hospital and had to leave me because I needed to be hospitalized for a month and he didn’t have enough money to stay in Chiang Mai for that duration. So he lied to me and said that he was going to go buy us food, left and never came back. He said it was the hardest decision he ever made because for one month he didn’t know if I was alive or dead, and was only aware of my status when I was brought back to the refugee camps. I don’t have any memories of this but I do remember watching my dad walk across the lawn only to not see him come back.
Loredana: I am fascinated by the use of the self-portrait, which is a format you adopt in many of your works. Do you use the self-portrait as a strategy to look at the “other”—in a sense to cross the border and reflect on the other side that is different from you?
Abdul: One of the things I have to be careful to articulate is that I speak as a Muslim and from my personal experiences, rather than on behalf of Muslims or anyone else’s experience. I use myself, and specifically my body, to communicate personal ideas, but it is rare that you will see my face. I hope this deliberate (although slight) obfuscation of my identity privileges the idea over the self. These are self-portraits but I want them to be broadly relatable, so they can’t just be about me.
Loredana: Tell us more about the use of your props for this series: the mask from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes and the actual monkey, as well as the Apsara headpiece. We have talked a lot about these elements during the research leading up to the exhibition, and I think the readers would be fascinated to hear more from you.
Abdul: This is actually the second series in which I have used the mask from Planet of the Apes. The first was a body of work called Siege in which I wore the mask in a series of photographs that looked at what I’ve come to understand as the ‘siege mentality’ that I believe affects marginalized groups. The first work in that series comprises myself wearing the mask along with traditional attire I would wear to the mosque, and it was called “You see monsters.” This work was an accusation directed at the audience as if to say: this is what you see when you see me. The genesis for this series happened when I was watching the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film on my laptop, and on my television in the background a 24-hour news channel was showing images from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For me there was a sudden correlation with the depiction, framing and even costuming of the Mujahideen and the bad apes in the film that felt immediately relevant to my experience. Beyond performance of “otherness,” more pertinent is the projection of “otherness.”
Loredana: To what extent do you think art can address the crises of our time, Islamophobia, for instance, in your works, and yet also be able to influence its resolution?
Abdul: Haha, that is a hard one. When people ask me if my art can contribute to a cure, I tell them all I’ve got is paracetamol. While my work definitely doesn’t exclude the power brokers, it isn’t necessarily for them. When I’m making work my intention is to create a legacy of cultural artifacts for the nine-year-old version of me in Western Sydney, or Hackney, or White Chapel, or wherever, who is just discovering that their story isn’t being represented in the dominant narrative, and who is potentially just realizing that they are different. I’m not inventing anything; I’m just rearticulating what already exists. I’m not consciously trying to reflect anyone else’s experience other than my own, but I hope there’s enough of a shared experience for my audience to relate.
Pao Houa Her
Loredana: Through your staged photographs for the Attention series you ask the viewers to reflect on how we give and receive dignity and on how social identity operates. These are very daunting questions to ruminate on, but departing from your status as Hmong in Minnesota, where the series was shot, can you share with us more about your experience growing up in a community that operates, in some respect, at the margins of society?
Pao Houa Her: I grew up in the Midwest. The landscape with its climate is a huge departure from Laos. Nobody knew what Hmong was, or why we came to America. People were taken aback when we told them our history; some even question our history because we weren’t in the history books. So all of this piled on top of identity issues. I’d say growing up Hmong and being a refugee was really hard. There was pressure from my parents to do well in school because they saw and believed that education was our only way out of poverty but there was also pressure to uphold Hmong culture and traditions. It also didn’t help that I became an artist—a profession that’s frowned upon.
Loredana: We see in the Attention series how history gets obliterated and altered to selectively record or forget events of the past. How does history operate in your work?
Pao Houa Her: In my work, history is very important because I, a Hmong woman, am telling it, using it. And I say this because our history has always been told by Hmong men, and by white men, and in the perspective of the men in our community. They are the ones who recount—the authorities and holders of our history. They are the ones that the community goes to when one needs to learn about Hmong culture and history. Hmong men are the ones telling our history, drawing our history for Hmong women to weave into tapestry. They are the ones who sit at the table for important people. And for many years this was the way things were. No one questioned it, but I will say that it’s slowly changing. Younger Hmong women are asking about other Hmong women. We are questioning our history and why only we are privy to this history so in some way things are changing. In my practice I use our history to talk/explore/examine the present and the future.
Loredana: Can you tell us more about your encounter with the Hmong veterans that are the subjects of your works, as well as their involvement in your photographic series? During our conversations leading up to the exhibition, I learned from you that while the veterans perform their own “mock” ceremonies, they are in fact emulating the American military ceremonies, and acquiring military paraphernalia, such as uniforms and insignias, on the second-hand market. What does it mean for them, the veterans, to be recorded through your art project? Was there a sense of fulfillment, or, on the contrary, one of disillusion?
Pao Houa Her: My first encounter with the veterans took place at the funeral of one of my uncles. He was also a fighter during the Vietnam War but because the US does not recognize his service, when he died he did not receive any military burial rights. Instead his Hmong veterans performed his US military burial rites— something they learned from YouTube. I found this incredibly humbling and sad. I asked to photograph them and from there I started researching military photographs made by the US. From this research I made a conscious decision to photograph these men using tropes from 19th-century portrait paintings, presidential and military photographic portraits. For most of these men, being photographed in their military uniform was a first. For them to be photographed and exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art was an affirmation of their service to the US.
The exhibition Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia is on view through 3 March 2019 at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Abdul Abdullah’s (b. 1986, Perth, Australia) provocative, salient work addresses the politicization of the Muslim identity in our post-9/11 world. Drawing on his personal experiences growing up as Malay-Australian in suburban Perth, Abdul exposes the marginalization of the Muslim youth today. His distinctively dark oeuvre explores perceptions of cultural hybridity, ritual and ceremony, and the intimate aspects of self and identity that elucidate the human condition. Abdul’s works are in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, among others. He lives and works in Perth, Australia. www.abdulabdullah.com
Pao Houa Her (b. 1982, Laos) works across multiple genres and techniques of photography, and is renowned for her portraits of the Hmong people and her narrative of identity and belonging within the Hmong American community. Pao was born in the northern jungles of Laos. When the Vietnam War broke out, she with her family fled the conflict, like many others, by crossing the Mekong River as an opium-fed baby on her mother’s back. Her works have been shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Telemark Art Center in Skien, Norway, among others. She lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. www.Paohouaher.com
Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani is an independent curator, writer and lecturer of Southeast Asian contemporary art. Complemented by continuous dialogue with artists and art professionals, her research, fieldwork and curatorial practice revolve around critical social and political issues in Southeast Asia, advocating a counter-hegemonic and non-Western-centric discourse. Loredana’s current and recent exhibitions as well as engaged research projects that examine art and society at the periphery include Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia (2018) with MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Heads or Tails? Uncertainties and Tensions in Contemporary Thailand (2017) with Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York; The Game/Viet Nam by LE Brothers (2016) with Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok; and Architectural Landscapes: SEA in the Forefront (2015) with Queens Museum, New York. Loredana recently edited the publication Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia, published in conjunction with the exhibition, which includes specially commissioned essays by historians and subject-matter experts on topics related to migration, borders and diasporas. Loredana is based between London, UK, and Bangkok, Thailand.
Featured image credits: Abdul Abdullah, Coming to Terms – Conciliation (of self) , 2017, archival prints, 100 ⋅ 100 cm. Image courtesy MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum.