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  • Shawn Gilliam

JUST FOR GUIDES: Peace Project Stories from Artist Teo Nguyen

Opportunities to meet and learn from the artists behind Mia exhibitions can provide a treasure trove of insights to include in our tours. Minneapolis artist Teo Nguyen—whose Viêt Nam Peace Project exhibition is on view until June 2023—has connected with guides in a particularly special way, sometimes by happenstance in the galleries. “As an artist who has gained recognition and success, Teo is remarkably unassuming and accessible,” says Mia Guide Manju Parikh, who has connected with Nguyen in the galleries, both during the current exhibition and following a tour she had just conducted for Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975 and Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views on the American War in 2019. “I had been moved by these small reproductions based on wartime photos and … as the group left, I was thrilled to meet Teo, who walked over and informed me that he was the artist.”



Rachel McGarry, Elizabeth MacMillan Chair of European Art and Curator of European Paintings and Works on Paper, notes that visitors to the Botticelli exhibition have also taken interest in the exhibition of Nguyen’s work. “Teo is so talented—a really important artist living and working right here in Minneapolis,” McGarry says.


Photo of Teo Nguyen by Elliot deBruyn



Born in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, Nguyen moved to the U.S. at the age of 16. As an artist, he’s best known for photorealistic landscape paintings of the Midwestern countryside. He has adapted that style to the landscapes of Vietnam seen in the Mia exhibition, but with a difference: The works in Viêt Nam Peace Project reference famous news photographs taken during the war in Vietnam, but with the atrocities removed.


For guides, Nguyen recently shared a few stories that helped shape the exhibition, who he is as an artist, and his efforts to encourage peace as a practice. Here are those stories, in his words.


Music and Nature

I often listen to Vietnamese singers like Khanh Ly, who was very popular in Vietnam back in the 1960s and ’70s, sort of like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. Her music just puts me in this trance and, all of a sudden, I’ve been painting for four or five hours and didn’t even realize it. Especially with Viêt Nam Peace Project, her music brought me back to the mountains and the sea.


On the sea, lying down on the white sand beach in my hometown under these pine trees, the wind would come in and these pine needles would sing. The trees are not as dense and the needles are really long, unlike the pines here. Ly’s music takes me to that place and time.


[Later in the interview] And then at night, I remember my siblings and I would sit in front of our house and, with no electricity, the moon was the only light. The setting was intensified and I could see people from a few hundred meters away. And because there was no light pollution, you could watch for satellites—I could see the same satellite every single night, and it was the most magical thing to think, what is that up there?



Family History

Sometimes my brothers and sisters would talk about the war. Once they recalled the time when our uncle came to our village to say goodbye to our family. My uncle used to work for the U.S. government and in April of 1975, when the communist government overtook the south, my uncle got on a boat to flee. But at the last minute, he decided not to leave his wife and children, who were back in his hometown. To return home, he had to go past my hometown. And he knew that if he returned home, he’d be killed by the communists. So he stopped by my parents’ house, on his way home, to say goodbye for the last time. He said, “I won’t ever see you again, because I know by the time I go back to my old house, I will be killed.” And that’s exactly what happened. He returned home and the next day [the communist military] came in and took him away.


This is what my aunt told us later—that they took him away. And of course, my aunt couldn’t sleep and so she just stayed up. She needed to know where they took him. One day, she passed out in the middle of the afternoon. She was so exhausted, she dozed off. She had a dream, and in her dream, my uncle said, “Come out here to this spot and bring me home. It’s too hot out here.” When she woke up, she hired two guys from her village and they went out to the exact spot where he told her to go in her dream. They started digging and they dug him up. [The communist military] had tied him up with another guy and just buried them alive. But my aunt was able to bring him home. I almost don’t believe in those kinds of things until I ask myself, how would my aunt know exactly where to go? The following year, my older siblings—three brothers and one sister—were sent to the re-education camp with my mom and dad. I was young and left behind with the nuns [at school] and one older sister, and I was allowed to stay with my parents at the re-education camp during the summer when I was not attending school. That lasted for 11 years.


Growing Up

When I was young, the war was still so fresh in our collective memories. Its presence was felt long after 1975. I remember how much us kids loved soccer. And there is this open field in my hometown, and we’d go out there and play. And on certain days, they would have military drills—and now that I’m older, I know those were Russian helicopters. As soon as helicopters flew above us, over our heads, we all thought, this is it. We froze. We were just so scared. We all thought that bombs were going to drop and we were all going to die. Sometimes when you’re so scared, you can’t even move because your legs become too weak or too heavy.


I also have fond and funny memories of my formative years. Back then, people were struggling with nothing to eat, and we couldn’t beg, because we were all so poor. One day a friend and I walked past this banana tree and there was this giant bundle of bananas. But all the bananas were green. We were so young and so bad. We literally cut them off the tree, but they were too heavy to carry. Plus we couldn’t take any home because people would see us and say, “Oh, my god, you just stole the bananas.” So we found a bush and just threw the bundle in there. And three or four days later, we came back and the bananas were nice and yellow. The two of us little kids just sat there and literally knocked ourselves out eating so many bananas.



Closing Thought

(Shared by Micah Tran, Nguyen’s husband and a fellow Vietnamese American)

When a person experiences war in their own country, we know that once the bombs stop dropping and the guns cease firing, the suffering and inhumanity persist. In reality, the traumas last for generations. And when we hear stories of the atrocities of rape and being buried alive and it happened to someone we know, someone that is our uncle or our parent, it hits us hard and remains with us. And we have to learn to live with it.


This is why we need to tell our own stories—and why it is important to recognize that the sources of conflicts of war stem from how humans assign identities to the people and the places they don’t understand. This practice of “othering” or reducing “them” into something lesser and disposable enables human atrocities. That was the narrative that 18-year-old Americans heard before and during their time Vietnam. The same narratives that the French asserted during colonization. The same narratives that both the communist Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese adopted towards each other. This is the narrative of our inhumanity. And that’s why dialogue and a commitment to practice peace is so important.


For more on Nguyen’s experiences and inspirations leading up to the Viêt Nam Peace Project exhibition, including other stories, check out the article that ran in the July issue of Mpls.St.Paul magazine, online here – https://mspmag.com/arts-and-culture/teo-nguyen-painting-peace.


Nguyen and Tran will also meet with Mia Guides via Zoom in a meeting currently scheduled for December 1.

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