After a decade-long process, Kenny Nguyen and his family — father, mother, two sisters — made their way to the United States from Vietnam in 2010. The visa process, prompted by Nguyen’s uncle who runs a successful insurance business out of the Asian Corner Mall on North Tryon Street, took the family roughly 10 years, ending in 2010, when Nguyen was a 20-year-old university student working in fashion design.
Though his time working with a design company was, as he says, a “short moment in [his] career,” it was a formative moment, shaping the way he would express himself when he moved to Charlotte, without knowing the language, with no connections beyond that of his immediate family. He would use his experience to become a visual multimedia artist.
On Aug. 27, Kenny Nguyen will retrace his life’s path through art as one of 10 artists featured in the Brooklyn Collective’s upcoming show, Reconstructing Deconstruction, which tells stories of cultural heritage, from breaking down to rebuilding, acting as a mirror of each individual journey. It’s an exhibit that appears to be made for Nguyen, who deconstructs silk garments and rebuilds them into creatively painted sculptures.
A cultural fiber
After first arriving in Charlotte, Nguyen would join his family on trips to the Mint Museum. Unable to speak the language, he allowed the artists’ work to speak to him. His family has always been supportive of his work, as they are drawn to “the appreciation of beautiful things,” Nguyen says. “It’s a connector.”
As Nguyen explored mediums of his own, he found himself working in silk, a fabric with significant cultural implications. Moving from Vietnam, his life before now seems like a distant memory, one he can almost access when working in a fabric that is so close to home.
As he worked to translate his story into his work, he began to study silk’s complex association with its cultural roots across Asia, including Vietnam.
French rule over the country from 1887-1954 (with a brief four-year break in the 1940s) affected all facets of Vietnamese culture from agriculture to art. Though Vietnam had produced silk for centuries prior, Vietnamese artists of the early 20th century (primarily 1925-1945) began producing now-famous works utilizing silk canvas, the painting influenced by but distinguished from those in China and Japan with a heavy French influence.
Silk was stretched to form a canvas, scenes of traditional Vietnamese life painted delicately from organic materials, the art form becoming somewhat synonymous with Vietnamese culture.
In what could be seen as a revolutionary approach, Nguyen began to rip silk into thousands of pieces, soaking them in paint, rebuilding the delicate material into a malleable medium from which he constructs sculptures. It’s a meditative experience, allowing space to process memories, developing them into a visual language, hoping to recall some of the memories he’s lost along the way.
“Silk is a surprising fabric,” Nguyen says. “It’s delicate yet strong. To destroy a piece of silk is a breakthrough — you just have to do it even though you really don’t want to and push the limits of the material. Something new might come out of it, something more exciting.”
It was through this process, before he had the words his English-speaking peers could understand, that Nguyen told the story of his rebirth as a Vietnamese immigrant, ripping himself away from his culture and rebuilding himself in a strange and unexpected way, his personal identities evolving over time.
“I felt like nothing,” he says. “Now I feel like my voice is the only presence in the art itself.”
Prior to his 2010 move, Nguyen would get lost in the process of design as he sculpted silk into evening gowns and wedding dresses, the body of the wearer acting as a canvas, the silk his medium. With fine art he found more freedom to use the materials abstractly, keeping with the flow of sculpting elegant gowns absent of a body through the antithetical process of destruction.
“Silk is a rich cultural material,” Nguyen says. “It is a ‘perfection material’. It was a jump for me to use something so flawless and do something new with it.”
Nguyen has spent his entire life chasing the American Dream, regardless of whether or not it was his intention.
“It’s such a mixed feeling,” he says. “You don’t belong here but you’re kind of bonded in a way.”
In the 10 years he’s been here, Nguyen has yet to return to Vietnam. He says he’s not quite ready to go back just yet.
“It’s such a strange feeling,” he says. “I’m not Vietnamese anymore but I’m not American; I don’t belong to this culture or traditional Vietnamese culture. I’ve made this my home but it’s always changing.
“People in Vietnam always have a dream about America, like ‘If we have a chance to move, we are going’ but you never know if your file will go through, you don’t know where you’re going to be. It’s all so uncertain.”
Nguyen sees how the communist government filtered the art of Vietnam and still holds the belief that being in America — his opportunities at UNC followed by his various residency opportunities — has allowed him his own version of the American Dream.
But, like a piece from his current exhibit with the Brooklyn Collective of the same name, the fabric of his past has been ripped to shreds, covered, hardened, painted and remolded, the words “American Dream” distorted, barely visible, unless you happen to know where to look.
The journey from Vietnam to the United States was sudden, though expected. Nguyen grew up being told he was going to move to the U.S. The idea floated around with no definite time frame, the Nguyen family living life as normal, despite numerous trips to Vietnam’s U.S. Embassy to prove themselves worthy of a visa via formal interviews and a collection of documents. There was a sense of impermanence, that their life in Vietnam could be upended at any moment, should their imploring of the embassy be actualized.
Life in Vietnam was a drastic contrast to what Nguyen would eventually experience in the United States. The family lived on a coconut farm in South Vietnam near the Delta, where there was no electricity until 1998. Nguyen’s father would take the three children to school by boat, traveling by river to the next village for the children’s education.
“There were no roads to really connect the land,” Nguyen says. “I lived in the jungle for real.”
In the 1800s, after roughly a century of French missionary presence, the French colonized Vietnam, claiming it a “civilizing mission,” which in essence exploited land and people for profit in the name of industrial progress. It was out of this era that sugar cane, coffee and coconut farms, like the land of Nguyen’s childhood, came to prominence. In response, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign of communism and nationalism which he believed would unite the country in the face of colonization, but instead brought on the 1954 division into North and South Vietnam, leading to the eventual outbreak of the Vietnam War.
Kenny Nguyen was born after the war’s 1975 end, though those in his parents’s generation watched as the conflict and subsequent government response unfolded. Nguyen’s uncle was trapped in Vietnam where, as a former employee of the South Vietnam government, he endured life in the communist government’s re-education camps. Nguyen says his uncle saw more than half of his fellow prisoners killed.
“My uncle was very lucky to get out,” Nguyen says. “They told him ‘You are too ‘jungle era’. Go back to chopping wood.’”
While many fled the country by boat, Nguyen’s uncle was one of nearly half a million Vietnamese who were brought to the U.S. through Humanitarian Operation, a subset of the Orderly Departure Program. In 1990, the U.S. became his permanent home.
As his family worked to provide embassy staff with photos, documents, correspondence and any proof that his stateside-residing uncle was their legitimate family, Nguyen continued his education, working in fashion and finding himself fascinated with silk and canvas. Then, in 2010, the upending he both desired and dreaded materialized.
“I’d just started school and had this part-time job in fashion and suddenly we started to move,” Nguyen says.
The process was alienating. After beginning an independent creative life for himself in the only country he’d known, Nguyen was thrust into American society with no working knowledge of the language, no one with whom he could communicate aside from his family.
It was through this sudden shock and drastic change in environment that Nguyen struggled to start over. For the first couple months, he’d join his uncle at his office in the Asain Corner Mall, the only place he could mingle with people who spoke his language and were familiar with the life he’d just left.
The mall became a reprieve from the unfamiliar, filled on the weekends with other Vietnamese Americans, some driving an hour or more to catch up on grocery shopping for items they couldn’t find elsewhere, filing away paperwork with the help of those who spoke their language. Nguyen used these fleeting moments to feel more connected to his community.
“I felt isolated living here the first couple of years and it became one of my biggest fears,” Nguyen says. He realized that in order to embrace this change, he had to start somewhere.
A cousin owned a nail salon and Nguyen took a job cleaning, listening in as customers spoke, picking up English bit by bit. Some, he says, “were nice enough to help [him] learn,” though he strived to learn on his own.
In his time alone, Nguyen found himself drawn to the canvas, creating art as a modality for visual storytelling when oratory was not an option. This life experience — living on a farm accessible almost exclusively by boat, a lifetime spent awaiting their impending move followed by the sudden uprooting to a foreign country — was a story Nguyen needed to tell. It was in art that he found his voice.
After two years of being in the states, Nguyen again enrolled in a local university, this time in UNC-Charlotte’s Fine Arts program where he began to implement and weave together the stories of his past, finding a common thread in the narrative of his time in Vietnam and his story of immigration, exploring ways to tell the story of his past and present as they seamlessly coalesced into one.
Through Reconstructing Deconstruction, Kenny Nguyen will be able to express that idea in a way he could once only dream of.