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Another Crossing: Seeking Solace in a Sea of Black Oil Paint

For five days and four nights, Saigon-based artist Bao Vuong will be in sole confinement with nothing but a pen and paper. He will have no food or water throughout this period, except for any rainwater he can collect in a bucket.

This bold statement is a performance in his upcoming solo exhibition Another Crossing at Manzi Art Space. It is a continuation of his exhibition from Saigon last year, The Crossing, a series of paintings in jet-black oil paint depicting the vast emptiness of the sea at night and the stench of motor oil.

In 1979, when Vuong was one year old, his family left their home in the Mekong Delta’s Vinh Long Province and became refugees crossing the sea in the dead of night.

“You think when you are arriving somewhere that you are safe, but you are not, you have to move on to another place. We arrived in the first camp in Malaysia, but after 10 days they forced us to leave, they pushed us onto the boat, cut the rope and sent us back to sea," Vuong tells Urbanist Hanoi.

'Night 1' by Bao Vuong.

"We spent five days without food and water, so for the duration of my five days at Manzi, I will be without food and water. I have four paintings to represent the four nights of our crossing. After this journey, we were rescued by a big boat that brought us to Singapore, where we waited for 10-11 months until we were able to go to France, where we stayed. I believe in fate, now I’m here.”

Bao Vuong grew up in the south of France with his family, and he went on to graduate from the National School of Fine Arts in Toulon and Avignon. At 34 years old, he decided to return to Vietnam to live and create his series of work exploring his family’s history and the legacy he carries with him. Through his creative practice, he began to illustrate his personal research of the trajectory of his family through the use of raw materials such as rice cakes, incense, plastic bags and water.

I asked my mother what was her state of mind on the boat at that time.
She said she was not scared or sad.
She couldn’t think of anything. She was just thirsty.

My first word as a child, it was on the boat.
This first word was nước (water).

Because our eyes have not cried, because our hearts did not give up,
because they escaped that hell, I carry their destiny in me.

— 'Traversée' by Sarah Hang Ducos and Bao Vuong.

“It wasn’t until I arrived in Vietnam that my mother began to share her stories of our journey," he says. "One day, she spoke about it with my aunts; everything that happened in the boat, how we left the first night. There were four pirate attacks on the first night. Every time they thought perhaps they were being rescued by fishermen. At this time, there were many Thai, Laotian or Vietnamese people waiting."

"The first group took everything; all of the jewelry and the money. The second ship separated the young women from the group. The third ship attempted to sink the boat. Fortunately, some of the men in our boat could speak English and persuaded them not to. At this time a lot of people tried to flee, and many were caught. My mother wasn’t expecting that we would have to leave, especially so quickly. She had no time to say goodbye to her family, she was in the middle of nowhere in the dark."

"I asked my parents if they were very sad, or perhaps afraid, when they had to leave Vietnam like that," Bao adds. "My mother said, ‘No, we cannot be sad about something like that, we were just thirsty. We were just trying to survive, we didn’t have the energy to be afraid of anything.’ My father said, ‘We were just waiting to die.’ I was able to survive because my mother had a bit of milk to breastfeed me. My first word was ‘nước,’ which I said on our journey." 

'The Crossing VII' by Bao Vuong.

Darkness is a prevalent theme within his work, through the palette of his paintings and through the expression of fear, vastness, trauma and isolation. The black paint can convey the fears associated with exile, while the reflections of the exterior light on the paint strokes represent glimmers of hope, echoing the promise of a better world on the other side of the ocean.

‘Nuoc’ will be preceded by a personal interview with the artist’s mother. It seems fitting that her voice will guide him into this experience as she becomes a direct participant in his piece.

“It will be a kind of retreat for me, a retreat from technology and people. I will have nothing except some paper to draw and make origami," Vuong explains. "My drawings will be like a meditation, creating lines on the paper. They may not be totally straight because I will be so tired, creating a waveform. In these situations, we realize that we think we need so many small and inconsequential things, we don’t realize we are so dependent on our things.”

While this will be a form of escape from society, Vuong will place himself in an extreme situation where his body will undergo severe deprivation for several days. In the week leading up to the event, he will prepare by gradually fasting, reducing his consumption of food and water.

“I don’t have any of my own personal memories of the experience. Sometimes people ask me how it possible for me to create work around this if I cannot remember it. I think my brain doesn’t remember, but my body remembers the trauma; it is why I’m so skinny. It’s a legacy of my parents. When I was a teenager living in France, all I wanted was to integrate into society, to be like all my friends," the artist shares.

"When I went to art school, my teachers assumed I was trying to express something about my country’s history and the war and I said no. Something inside me had to go outside of this to rediscover it. I didn’t make a deliberate choice to work on this, it came to me very naturally. I had to do this as an expression for my parents, for all the people that cannot convey it with words."

A portrait of Bao.

"When you experience trauma it is very difficult to express this, it can take a long time. Some people go their whole life unable to talk about it. Some can do it through writing a novel, giving a talk or making documentaries," he says. "This is what I want to do, share my experience creatively. I have this legacy from my parents, the other boat people, from my country. It’s important to talk about this part of our history. When I started to do this work, my parents began to better understand what I do as an artist, strengthening my bond with them. This is cathartic work.”

For Vuong, this time will be a long invocation to remember, to be closer to the memory of his parents, the two hundred people with whom they shared a boat and the many other migrants experiencing similar traumas. It is for him a necessity, an act of extremity to understand, to relive and question, to create.

The 'Another Crossing' exhibition takes place at Manzi Art Space from June 7 to July 5. Bao's 'Nuoc' performance will take place upstairs at Manzi from June 7 to 11. 

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