Censorship of art exhibit

A photograph depicting a Vietnamese woman wearing a shirt with a communist flag led to the exhibit’s closure.

When he was 21 years old, my father fled a war-ravaged Vietnam with his family by boat. My mother, at 18, left by plane. They were two of millions of Vietnamese who sought refuge in the United States, became American citizens and struggled to provide for their families in a new society. Now, more than 30 years after the Vietnamese-American community had been established, the freedom of expression that so many refugees yearned for is denied to them by, unfortunately, members of their own community who shut down a provocative communicative art exhibit in Orange County, Calif. The âÄúF.O.B. II: Art SpeaksâÄù exhibit recently put on by the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association was forced to close down two days earlier than scheduled. Presenting more than 50 works of Vietnamese artists from the United States and Vietnam while celebrating the many artistic voices of the Vietnamese-American community, the exhibit ignited and outraged responses by the most vocal faction because it displayed a particular photograph by Brian Doan. Its subject matter? A young Vietnamese woman standing beside a bust of Ho Chi Minh and wearing a shirt representative of the flag of communist Vietnam. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Doan said the work was intended as a commentary on young people who grew up after the Vietnam War. But that photograph and a few other works were immediately construed as pro-communist and evocative of painful memories. Consequently, the entire exhibit was condemned, protested and shut down. Santa Ana, Calif. city officials stated that the organizers lacked the business license to present a gallery, but the hundreds of Vietnamese-American protesters demonstrating outside the building were clearly pressuring city officials, building owners and exhibit organizers alike. Leaving no further doubt of the strength of their anti-communist stance, they protested again the next day. One man, Ly Tong, went so far as to deface two pieces with red spray paint during the press conference on Friday, during which the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association argued for the use of art to initiate discussion and represent a diversity of voices in the Vietnamese community. The closing of âÄúF.O.B. II: Art SpeaksâÄù is another distressing example of how some community members not only protest to express their staunch anti-communist stance, but also use their protesting to shut down what they deem opposing voices and deny others their freedom of expression. Communities cannot thrive by thinking only in black and white terms. It is not progressive or healing to assume that someone must be a communist if they try to initiate dialogue about communism or relations between the Vietnamese-American communities, here and in Vietnam. To say that we are united under just one voice âÄî one experience âÄî would be a mistake. As the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association stated in their press release, we are âÄúa stronger community because of our diversity and not in spite of it.âÄù I commend the association for their brave effort to provide a space for art to speak, and to facilitate much-needed dialogue for this community in the aftermath of war. Although it was closed down before I got to see it, I heard the exhibit was an amazing collection of deftly intersecting art, politics and community identities âÄî and it was not meant to be hurtful. It is up to the younger generation to be open-minded and work with the older generation to ensure that the community heals in a positive way âÄî one that allows for its members to express themselves without fear. Our families came here because they sought those freedoms denied in Vietnam. They didnâÄôt come here to be denied them, once again, in their own community. We each have our own story, experiences and opinions, not just of the war but of the state of our community today. Our diverse voices, which a courageous art exhibit strived to represent, should not be silenced, but listened to and understood. This column, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Daily Bruin at UCLA. Please send comments to [email protected]