Today we’d like to introduce you to Phung Huynh.
Phung, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
I was a refugee, and so were my parents and grandparents. Our narrative of survival and migration is entangled in this complex history of postwar Asia, a period of upheaval, de-colonialism, reconstruction, and nationalism. In order to escape the brutal Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s, my father’s parents unwillingly left China to resettle in Cambodia, and my mother’s parents fled to Vietnam. Their exodus to Southeast Asia was ironically welcomed by another wave of violence, political and economic instability, and the incredible struggle to be alive. The Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge Genocide ravaged a once exotic paradise for French colonialists. My birthplace is Vietnam, but my home is Los Angeles. I came to the United States as a toddler and learned to speak English with my parents and grandparents in our living room while watching Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street on television. My cultural identity is a slippery combination of Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and American, but never in equal parts.
Assimilation was complicated and painful. There were three generations and eleven family members living in a small apartment in Chinatown. My sister and I shared a bed with my parents, and seven languages were exchanged in the household. At school, I was an F.O.B. (Fresh off the Boat), never American enough; and at home, I was never Asian enough. Art was a language I felt most fluent in even if what I was trying to say was not precise. I always loved to draw, and my grandmother taught me how to knit and crochet. But, my parents emphasized the importance of education and academic degrees as a means toward upward economic mobility. They never went beyond middle school. My mother, who always loved school, wanted better for her children, determined that we would not suffocate in a blue-collar sand trap. So, she wouldn’t let me learn how to sew, which was what she did for work when she first emigrated. At the age of five, on days when my mom would take me to work, I hid under the sewing machines and watched. I waited for her to walk away, and when she did, I would sneak up to teach myself how to sew.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was concentrated gang violence throughout Los Angeles, particularly in neighborhoods where communities were poor and underserved. For refugee and immigrant families who settled in these neighborhoods, many of my generation felt out of place at school, and at home, they couldn’t bridge the generational and cultural divide with our parents who were silenced by their own traumas and difficult migration experiences. Gangs gave my generation a place to belong. My parents were terrified that I would eventually join the ranks or even become a pregnant teen, and economic upward mobility finally afforded my family a “better” neighborhood with a bigger house, sandwiched between Echo Park and Silver Lake. To seal the deal, my parents made sure I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Hollywood. Unbeknownst to them, it was a progressive, feminist school where the nuns refused to wear their habits in the 1960s and decided to educate their way, to empower women of heart. I didn’t know what kind of woman I would become, but the seeds were already being planted.
Throughout my life, I would get asked, “Where are you from?” “What are you?” My name would regularly be mispronounced, butchered, and battered until some would even say; “You are in America now, so change your name.” I would not. In my history classes and in my own forensic activities to unearth my family’s history, I learned about colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and class, gender, and race inequity. As I witnessed the rapid gentrification of Angeleno neighborhoods and the lack of representation of people who looked like me in American popular culture and media, the seeds were sewing. Though my parents eventually had the means to own a sewing factory and provided jobs to over two hundred employees, designer companies would only pay them $5 per piece of clothing assembled and to be sold at retail stores for over $100. In the early 2000s, the sewing factory had to be liquidated because American clothing companies were getting their merchandise for much cheaper overseas. The seeds were starting to break earth.
Making art, drawing and painting, have always made me feel visible and audible. That feeling guided me even when I was reluctant to listen to it. During my first year as an undergrad at USC, I had my parents believe that I was a pre-med major when I was really a Fine Arts major. My untruth was revealed when I decided to take this art thing seriously and transferred to an art school in Pasadena. There, I learned how to develop this language, not necessarily in what I was communicating, but more in how I was communicating. I learned about color theory, composition, drawing and painting strategies, and I was exposed to mostly white male artists, often dead. Until one day, my professor, Robert Clayton, a known illustrator, an artist asked me, “Phung, why don’t you make art about you?” Now, I do make art about me and about people like me. I try to address issues of forced assimilation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation. But, the power of art does not stop at the production and eventual display of art itself. The power of art has to be activated by the artist herself. In that regard, I am an advocate of arts education and particularly in spaces that don’t have enough of it. I have participated in arts programming in two California state prisons, and I am raising two sons through the eyes and practice of a socially conscious creative. I teach at a community college in Los Angeles where anyone who wants a higher education is welcome, documented or undocumented, abled or disabled, and where anyone who wants to make art, can. This is my story.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
I am a Los Angeles-based artist whose practice is primarily in drawing and painting. My work investigates notions of cultural identity from a kaleidoscopic perspective, a continual shift of idiosyncratic translations. The contemporary American landscape is where I explore how “outside” cultural ideas are imported, disassembled, and then reconstructed. In an overwhelmingly diverse metropolis such as Los Angeles, images flood our social lens through mass reproduction and social media, taking on multiple [mis]interpretations. Such reflections have guided me in re-stitching traditional Chinese iconography within the loosely woven fabric of American popular culture. There is a purposeful “Chinatown” aesthetic in my paintings, alluding to kitsch souvenirs that tourists purchase and commodifications of eastern icons into tchotchkes. Dismantling cultural authenticity, I paint images of Chinese cherubs, lotus, carp and silk textile designs with a “pop” veneer that collide in a complicated composition of delight and horror to challenge the viewer with an eastern-leaning perspective, as well as the viewer with a Western-leaning perspective.
My recent work continues to probe the questions of cultural perception and cultural authenticity through images of the Asian female body vis-à-vis plastic surgery. I reference Chinese feet-binding as one of the earliest forms of cosmetic surgery to contrast the antiquated canon of Asian feminine beauty (small feet, small eyes, a broad forehead, and small breasts) with the current trends of body image influenced by western canons that call for larger eyes, a delicate forehead, a taller nose, and larger breasts. I am interested in how contemporary plastic surgery on Asian women have not only obscured racial identity but how it has also amplified the exoticism and Orientalist eroticism of Asian women. Therefore, the awkward synthesis of my projects of traditional and non-traditional, of east and west, unravel ideas of cultural representations and stereotypes to challenge how we consume and interpret ethnographic signifiers.
Most currently, expanding upon my interests in women, gender, cultural, and ethnic studies, I made a series of drawings, paintings, and silkscreen prints to create images of Rocky Rivera in a project to collaborate with the writer, rap artist, educator, and mother from the Bay area. Rocky Rivera’s lyrics express a range of social justice issues from gentrification to cultural appropriation. There is an unapologetic tension in being a feminist emcee in a blatantly sexist industry in which Rocky usurps the stereotypical misogynistic framework of rap and re-empowers women. Inspired by her powerful work, I have reimagined Rocky Rivera as the contemporary anti-Christ Madonna, whose image floats on the surfaces of paper, skateboard decks, candles, and canvas tote bags. Rocky Rivera and I have similar experiences in cultural assimilation as immigrants and have embraced 1990s hip hop and rap as the music of resistance, as well as empowering our transformed identity to combat colonized and patriarchal mentalities. Our approach as creatives is aligned with the mission to make art for the people. In October, Rocky Rivera will be releasing her third and latest album in which I made the cover art, depicting her as Kali with the heads of Proud Boys. This is a significant project, which is detailed in her press release:
“…Rocky’s Revenge, was created in collaboration with Women’s Audio Mission, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching girls and young women audio engineering. While much of her music has been the conceptual feminist counterpart to what is currently available in the mainstream, this project is a deeply personal venture into the psyche of anger and how it is stigmatized when gendered. Rocky’s Revenge is a nuanced take on the origins of misogyny – according to Rocky – and how it manifests in different ways through emotional relationships that women are socially conditioned to uphold. The arc of the narrative starts with white-hot rage, explores petty drama as well as nihilism, familial and societal jealousy, reimagines the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in “Not EZ” and ends with gratitude for a friend and mentor who has fallen victim to gun violence in Oakland. In addition to the music being available digitally, this award will help take the project to her fanbase outside of California and make the work more widely available as literature in the printed version of the project. Though hip-hop and rap is the primary performative medium, Rocky’s fanbase is known to sing along to every word, reprinting lyrics as gospel, and hailing its impact as healing and medicinal. Rocky has always been a writer first, rapper second, so this important step of legitimizing rap lyrics as poetry and teachable literature is long overdue.”
Artists face many challenges, but what do you feel is the most pressing among them?
“… find some beautiful art and admire it, and realize that that was created by human beings just like you, no more human, no less.”
– Maya Angelou
Artists are cultural builders and are vital to communities, particularly in Los Angeles, a very diverse metropolis where there are currently more artists per capita than any other city in the United States. However, we are ranked one of the lowest in public funding to support artists in our country. This disparity points to a systemic and cultural problem in which artists are not valued to the degree that they should be. Such devaluing of artists and art is also evident in the lack of arts funding in our public educational system. Without fiscal support, which can easily lead to the deficiency of other kinds of support, hardships for artists become overbearing. We need to make art present, accessible, and necessary in our public curriculums. We need to make art accessible to the public and not housed solely in the white cubes of private galleries and lofty museums. We need more funding for grants, and funding for public programming in the arts which encourage engagement and social practice. Lastly, we need to have subsidies and opportunities to support artists in more practical ways such as housing and healthcare. Until the most basic measures are made, artists can start to thrive.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
My work can be viewed digitally on my website (www.phunghuynh.com), and on my Instagram account (@phungxion). I have a filmed interview that was produced by Oeuvre Unlimited, and that interview can be accessed through the following links:
I have completed public art commissions throughout Los Angeles, which can be viewed in person at the Laurel Canyon Station on the Metro Orange Line, the El Monte Station on the Metro Silver Line, and the Elephant Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo.
I have two paintings that are currently in the permanent collection at the Vincent Price Art Museum, which is located on the campus of East Los Angeles College.
My current and upcoming exhibitions include:
“Sewing Circle,” Seaver Gallery, Los Angeles, September 2018 (closes September 29)
“SHe,” Launch LA, Los Angeles, September 2018 (closes September 29)
“Painting in the 21st Century,” Site: Brooklyn Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, September – October 2018
Fundraising art exhibition for Project Satori (a non-profit organization that supports victims of human trafficking), Substrate Gallery, October 20 and 21
Upcoming exhibition at Cerritos College Art Gallery in October (details to be announced)
The release of Rocky Rivera’s album in October 2018
- Website: www.phunghuynh.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @phungxion
- Facebook: Phung Huynh