Many happy returns: “Her 9th Birthday” shows off the craft and care Khanh H. Le takes with his manipulated photographs, on display at the Center for New Americans.
The show’s curator, Anh Nguyen, came to the United States from Vietnam in 1992. Now, as the director of the center’s Southeast Asian program, he helps others adapt to their new environment. One aspect of his position is to help build a vibrant local community. “My strong interest is promoting the cultural aspects of these people,” said Nguyen. He supports poetry, music, dance: any art that helps express common concerns and contributes to a sense of belonging.
For Nguyen, Le’s work poses the question: “How do you talk about family history when roots are removed?” Nguyen expects this will resonate with the community.
The problem of cultural identity is especially thorny for young refugees. Le, 27, left Vietnam with his family when he was only 9. Since then he has faced constant pressure from his elders to conform to their culture and an equal opposing pressure to fit in as an American. “Growing up was hard for me. I had to fight my parents and the American culture at the same time,” said Le.
Starting at 5 a.m. he worked at his parents’ janitorial business. After public school in St. Louis, he washed dishes at his aunt’s restaurant there. The young boy also had the added responsibility of being the only one in the family who could speak, read and write English. One thing he had in common with average American-born boys was a love of comic books, in particular the X-Men. Le identified with these mutants who went through rigorous training to perfect their powers but were always seen as suspicious by ordinary humans. They were the ultimate outsiders.
Le pursued an artistic interest in “the hyphenated, the in-between.” In an earlier body of work he interviewed numerous Vietnamese-Americans in the Syracuse area with an aim to tell their stories. Invariably they brought out photo albums to help explain their lives. Recognizing the importance of family snapshots in defining identity led to this current work.
Photographs are evidence, but interpretation makes them important. “When people ask me about my identity it is almost like it is fixed or permanent. But it is always in flux with the environment,” explained Le. By digitally manipulating, enlarging and embellishing images from his own family album, Le tries to reflect this process of perceptions changing over time.
Le’s works illustrate a selective and subjective memory. One photograph of his mother appears in two versions. In one, the walls are painted over with silver and the furniture with gold. The woman’s outfit is cropped away, leaving pure white. What remains is an identity without much context. The other version spares the nondescript furniture; gold paint covers the woman’s face instead. The walls disappear, though, revealing a Vietnamese street scene. A pattern of multicolored jewels creep up from the bottom of the frame. Here we have the flip side of the coin, an anonymous person lost amid a complicated and contradictory environment.
Alterations range from the minimal to the extreme. For example, in one image his family of four crowds onto a couch within a humble living room, circa 1985, which also sports a television with rabbit ears, a tall electric fan and a rotary phone sitting on a high stool. The photograph is banal except that the faces, hair and hands have been carefully trimmed away, leaving only ghostly white.
At the other end of the spectrum lies “Her 9th Birthday.” The photographic source of this image is thrown completely out of focus except for two houseplants. The figure of Le’s sister is cropped away and carefully redrawn with a contour line. The entire surface has been painstakingly covered with a lattice of gilded loops. Tiny plastic flowers and acrylic jewels are affixed at the intersections.
“Taking my time drawing circles is almost an act of devotion,” said Le. It is also time consuming to sort and glue on the little baubles, which he bought at a craft store in a package appropriately labeled “Making Memories.” Little of the original photo remains but its sentiment has been elevated by all this attention.
Le has nothing against the gallery system, but he wants to display his pieces “wherever they impact the most,” he noted. The Center for New Americans is the ideal setting to share his experience of juggling two cultures with new refugees, the local southeast Asian community and the wider community as a whole.
US- here, There, EVERYWhere is on display through June 10 at the Center for New Americans, 503 N. Prospect Ave. The center is open Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 474-1261.