“Friction is a point for growth and regrowth. Without friction, there would be no way to have a dialogue to expand our understanding,” Phung Huynh, a California-based artist, told me over the phone.
Huynh’s artwork doesn’t shy away from taboos. Over the course of her career, she has confronted topics such as the brutal aftermath of the American war in Vietnam and Cambodia, refugee assimilation into the United States, and the objectification of Asian women in the West.
Whether it’s a graffiti mural in a Los Angeles metro station or a painting that references the brutal legacy of Chinese foot-binding — triggering a visceral response from viewers — Huynh is at peace with her creations taking a life of their own. In that vein, provocation is a catalyst for generative conversations that go beyond the canvass or museum space.
Huynh’s incisive work has earned her widespread acclaim: this year, Los Angeles County named her Creative Strategist for the Office of Immigrant Affairs. Through multiple mediums — murals, cross-stitched license plates, paintings, and portraits on the back of donut boxes — Huynh centers her dynamic background and uplifts forgotten narratives, including her own.
Huynh’s mother was born in Vietnam of Chinese descent, while her father is a Cambodian genocide survivor who sought asylum in Vietnam in 1975. Born in Vietnam in 1978, Huynh later moved to a Thai refugee camp before resettling in Michigan and then Los Angeles as a young child. She attended New York University for an MFA in Fine Art and is currently doing a residency with the Los Angeles County of Immigrant Affairs to establish relationships between immigrant communities and the county’s institutions.
“Being an immigrant is not only about survival, it's about thriving and actually living. I feel like art speaks to that. We deserve not only to survive, but to live a full rich life,” she said.
In addition to public art murals, she’s shown her work at Los Angeles’s CB1, Sam Lee Gallery, New York City’s Gagosian, and a myriad of other spaces. Her Khmerican Series reclaims the daily struggles of making it as a refugee in the United States by rendering mass-producing objects into a historical archive. The multi-medium series consists of cross-stitched California license plates of Vietnamese and Cambodian names and portraits of Southeast Asian refugees on the back of pink donut boxes — an iconic staple of the Cambodian community in California. When drawing the portraits, she asked her subjects a series of questions about their own lived experience.
“Being in the diaspora, we're constantly trying to figure out where our roots go,” Huynh remarked.
Her family wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer, viewing a creative life as financially unsustainable. As a student at the University of Southern California, however, Huynh started taking art classes and found her calling. Though her family wasn’t initially supportive, with time, she realized that so much of what she does was in fact influenced by not only her upbringing but the artistry and craftsmanship passed down through her elders. Her mother was an avid sewer, while her grandmothers loved to embroider.
“Looking back, those were the early inspirations for why I really wanted to make art,” Huynh said. In addition, Huynh cites Charles Dailey, a Black artist who was a veteran of the war in Vietnam, as an early influence in introducing her to the history of people of color in Los Angeles.
A few days before the New Year, I spoke to Huynh about her dynamic body of work, why she believes art is an important tool for sharing diasporic experiences, and how provocation can pave the way for political change.
What inspired your “Khmerican” series?
I really wanted to make art about our people and to be able to have our stories told by us instead of seeing books and essays and artworks about our stories by people who are not us. The Trump administration was something that really spearheaded it — the anti-immigrant sentiment, the racism, this kind of oppression really made me feel like, “Okay, it's time to tell my family stories.” A few years ago, a colleague of mine gave me a Los Angeles Times article about why don't boxes in California are pink and it's because of Cambodian refugees and this is something I've always known, this is something that we grew up with. There was a part of me that felt a little upset and angry. Why is it that when a white journalist decides to write about our story that gets the attention? I'm tired of seeing our stories being told over and over again.
What's the significance of the cross-stitched license plates?
A lot of times growing up here in the United States, I would go to Magic Mountain or souvenir shops, and would find little tchotchkes and souvenir items that would have names and I couldn't ever find my name. It gestures to this idea of cultural assimilation. When we resettled here, we had an option to change our names. I had a list of anglicized names like Lisa, Cindy, and I'm like “No, Phung was a name that was given to me by my grandparents. This name is me.” I didn't want to lose my cultural identity.
Those cross-stitched California license plates speak to that idea of cultural assimilation and holding on to our Viet or Cambodian or Chinese identity and who we are. It broadens this idea of being American. Being American doesn't have to be anglicized. It’s bigger than that.
These California license plates are mass-produced. A lot of becoming American is being exposed to mass media and popular culture. But these are individually embroidered, which again usurps this idea of mass production, and that we're not cookie cutter, we're very individual. But on some levels, it also reminds me of my grandparents, grandmothers and mothers and how they sewed and made clothes. That's how my mom and my dad provided for our family — they sewed and eventually had a few machines and gave jobs to local immigrants and then a factory. I was a garment factory kid. That series has so many connections and levels of meaning for me.
For the donut box series, you interviewed your portrait subjects. What was that process like?
It was very moving. When we learn about the American war in Vietnam, or the genocide, it's written by white historians here in the United States which has a very lopsided, asymmetrical perspective. People like my parents didn't have time to get a college degree, or to write books. I wanted to honor people in my community from the Southeast Asian community. These are all folks I've known or I've read about, or I heard from friends, incredible people that I feel should be included and remembered.
I would sit with them and ask them simple questions at first like — “What's your name? Where were you born? Where were you born?” From those simple questions, people began to expand on their experiences. I learned that history as we learn it, can be very impersonal and by making these portraits, it allowed me to have very personal relationships and hear individual stories. History tends to erase individuals and kind of just make them bleed into historical narratives that can be cold, and so that was the biggest learning point for me is to remember to deeply connect with people.
Your “Pretty Hurts” series addresses the objectification of Asian female bodies. Making work that comments on objectification can be difficult because there's a fine line between satirizing and perpetuating these tropes. How did you ensure that your message got across?
A lot of it was research, and a lot of it was a lot of my own personal experiences living in an Asian body and having to deal with the pressures of assimilating to white beauty standards. I don't think I'm perpetuating it at all. But by making these works, I’m allowing that question to be answered by the viewer.
For example, this woman from China, who was really offended by my work, said, “I'm not trying to be white, I'm just trying to be more beautiful. This is who I am.” And I asked her, “Well, where does that come from these questions about what you feel is beautiful? What parts of you feel that are not beautiful, and you're trying to change? Where's that coming from?” Through my art, I ask folks to really look deeply at [beauty standards that are promoted in advertisements and pop culture].
Yeah, my work can be very offensive. I mean, there’s nudity; and plastic surgery is violent. But I'm really just exposing it unedited, and straddling that line. The artist makes the work with the intention of what it's supposed to be, but we can't protect how people interpret the art. Maybe some people do feel that it perpetuates it. But in the work, the women are not passive and they’re not objects. They are in control of their gestures and their facial expressions and what they're doing.
How did you get involved with public art and murals?
I always had two lives. When I was going to graduate school at NYU to get a fine art degree to show museums and galleries and become an art professor, I was also an illustrator. I would do editorial illustrations for things like Rolling Stone and hip hop magazines so that I could pay for grad school. So being an illustrator, I already had this way of using art to communicate to the masses and understanding what that language looked like through caricature and color, like pop art.
When I started showing in museums and galleries, the opportunity for Metro came up to design the Laurel Canyon’s Orange Line station, and I applied for it, and I got it. That just led to a series of more metro stations and different public artwork. I love the idea of making art for the people and it occupies public space. Not one person with money can own it. That artwork lives out there with the people in the community and resonates with the community. And in fact, some of our work has been graffitied and I don't mind that because they're like scars. That's just part of the art that continues to live and grow in the community.