Of onion peels and healing in art

, Of onion peels and healing in art

Giang was sitting across me, looking straight into my eyes. I don’t speak Vietnamese and he’s just beginning to learn English. The first time I met him, he gave me catalogs and booklets of LGBTQ writings in Vietnam which I put aside because I was inept in the language it was written. Giang is an LGBTQ rights activist and a multi-media artist.

“How do you feel about those comments?” I asked him. He hunched his shoulders and raised his brows. I was referring to the feedback he received from some artists who visited their art exhibit I dropped by to check that day.

Mở chuyện – mở lòng. Open a Story – Open your Heart. This is how Google translates the title of the group exhibit. Mai, Giang’s collaborator and partner, said the translation was almost accurate as we’re standing outside Toha Cafe. She was pointing to the image in their event poster, an onion, that could pass to me as either beetroot or a radish.

“Onions has got layers. We chose it because it’s domestic,” Mai related.

When I barged into the exhibit earlier that afternoon, I could not distinguish between the cafe decorations and the artworks placed at seemingly random spots for display. Thankfully, I’ve got a personalized exhibit tour for my non-Vietnamese needs.

Mai walked me through every art piece in the room lurking at corners that were easy to miss. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to connect to the works. She started with “Scattered”, a bottle filled with human hair. Next to the art piece was a text that tells a story of a woman whose boyfriend removed his condom during their intercourse. The woman in the story was left confused over the relationship that her hair fell.

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When Mai started translating each of the stories printed in the text, that was the time I was caught engaged with the exhibit. The next piece was “Debris”, a triptych of pen scratches on papyrus-shade paper. It tells a story of the connection among women who had abortion. A connection based on the common struggle of trying to seek medical support but being mocked by public health institutions, of the judgment from the society over their moral compass, and how those young teenage girls bear the emotional and physical trauma of abortion up to womanhood.

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“Tear”, according to Mai was the piece most triggering to the visitors. Giang retold the story of a woman abused and constantly raped in a relationship in a notebook. He captured the exact words and expressions his collaborator told him. Scared! Scared! Scared! Help me! Help me! I’m confused! I hate my body! were among the phrases scratched heavily in the notebook. Some pages were torn, some stained. But unless you open it, the notebook looks normal judging from the cover alone.

Another notebook piece entitled “Sleeplessness” tells a story of a woman who got pregnant even while using contraceptive pills. The woman eventually reasoned out that the baby was meant to be having survived the pills. However, the worries of having a normal child with normal limbs, normal brain functions consumed her.

The exhibit did not fall short of telling stories of getting stalked. A normal daily walk could turn any woman hyper-vigilant. Stalking is traumatic and an incident that appears similar to the previous experience could trigger anxiety. Thus Mai and Giang made it a point to be at the cafe gallery every day to provide support in case somebody would get triggered while checking the piece “Stalked”.

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Data from the United Nations Population Fund shows the slow progress in eliminating violence against women in Vietnam. Statistics of women who reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence from their partner fell only for merely 2.4 percent for a decade – from 34.4 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2019. In the 2020 data of UNPF, it indicated that 63 percent of Vietnamese women live with physical, sexual, emotional, and economic abuse.

“The most depressing comment we’ve ever received was from a woman. She said: I’m lucky to be educated enough to not experience what these women went through,” Mai told me in front of the last art piece. It was a photo of a plant entitled “Revival”. I stood with Mai as we gazed at the small print of a vine climbing up to the light. Someday, I hoped, that the same woman who gave the comment would eventually learn to walk in other people’s shoes.

Like most of the women who visited the exhibit, I was moved. I entered with my art curator’s bias – thinking about how lighting could be improved, how one piece could have stood out if it was placed in a particular corner, and so on and forth. But the experience of the exhibit while listening through Mai about the stories of Vietnamese women who survived abuse and were able to create a small community of support group through the process of coming up with an art show humbled me.

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I wanted to tell Giang who was flustered at the negative comment he received from the artists who came to visit that above all, contemporary art values process and concept. Walking with Mai while she was translating the stories was an accidental performative storytelling. The artworks placed in unlit altars, albeit unintentional, reflected how stories of abuse towards women are regarded in most societies – shameful thus hidden.

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The exhibit may have lacked the luster of the white cube, but from another perspective – the way it was staged could be viewed as a critic against the high brow art elitist. The group show was able to engage and move its audience, above all it was able to create a group that not only understands but also provides agency to invisible voices.

Open a Story, Open your Heart ran from 13th to 30th November 2021 in Toha Cafe, Vu Thanh, Dong Da, Hanoi. It was a group show collaboration among Nguyen Bang Giang, Buy Dui Thanh Mai, Nguyen Lan Chi, Le Vu, Van Ha, Lucas Nguyen, Nam Nguyen, and the anonymous women survivors who shared their stories.

The artists plan to stage an exhibit about “angry women” this coming year.

By Dumay Solinggay, an expat in Vietnam

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