Australia was once a kinder nation – Cat Thao Nguyen launches her book

Cat Thao Nguyen - Bankstown launchCat Thao Nguyen is an Australian citizen who fears for the future of the country. When her family arrived as refugees in 1980, after a long and harrowing journey from Vietnam, through Cambodia and Thailand, they were welcomed with kindness and compassion. There were many difficulties to confront, but they gradually found their feet with the help of government and community agencies, fellow refugee families, kindly neighbours and their own resourcefulness.

Then in 1996, Pauline Hanson was elected to federal parliament. As a teenager, Cat “watched in awe as she (Pauline Hanson) spoke of the ‘reverse racism’ suffered by white Australians as a result of Aboriginal assistance, of how the nation’s immigration policy had led to the imminent danger of Australia being swamped by Asians”. In the decades following, Cat has watched as the country has become increasingly “xenophobic, fearful and risk averse”. Leaders of both major political parties have done little to dispel this and Cat is thankful that her family, like so many other Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s are not trying to seek asylum in Australia now.

Cat Thao Nguyen was speaking Cat Thao Nguyen family - News Corpat the Sydney launch of her personal memoir We Are Here, on Wednesday, February 25, and reading extracts from her book, often through tears. I first met Cat in 2002, when she was a Sydney University law student and co-curator of VietPOP: Emergence at Liverpool Regional Museum, an exhibition of work by young Vietnamese-Australians. I wrote about this experience and her subsequent presentation at a 2009 conference Echoes of a War at Casula Powerhouse, in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney. By this time, she was an international lawyer working in Vietnam. Her insights about the experiences of refugee families and her clarity in explaining them were impressive and deeply moving.

We Are Here took her seven years to write. Both her parents had suffered almost unbearable privations in Vietnam and on the journey to Australia. Cat knew she had to be very sensitive to their pain as she gathered more of their stories. She traces her own growing up with humour and honesty as her parents worked patiently in an atmosphere of constant struggle and humiliation to provide for their three children and assist family back in Vietnam. After a particularly difficult time for them, she wrote “That day I vowed I would do whatever I could to be worthy of being my parents’ daughter, a daughter of this family – Cat Thao Nguyen - Sydney Airporta family that was surviving.” And indeed she has. Inspired by their integrity and commitment to family, she attained a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Law, became a youth representative to the UN General Assembly and an advocate for children’s rights. She is now a director of Ernst & Young, Vietnam, where she lives with her Chinese Canadian husband.

A second event was held in Bankstown, where so much of Cat’s story takes place. April Pham wrote, “A Sunday well spent at my friend Thao’s book launch for friends and family in Bankstown. A moving launch. Am so proud of her and her book about her family’s journey and the importance of living ethically. It speaks to so many of us, not only as refugees, but as individuals trying to live a life with purpose. Highly recommend We Are Here by Thao Nguyen.” Cat Thao took the photo above at Sydney Airport, on her way to Adelaide Writers Festival, March 2. She wrote, “En route to Adelaide for Adelaide Writers Week and saw my book next to Obama’s in Sydney airport! Surreal and emotional.” Click¬†here to order a copy.


Beyogmos explorations of identity offer profound insights and beauty

Beyogmos detail Mai Nguyen-Long 2014 KKA selection of images created by Mai Nguyen-Long in a rapid sequence of charcoal drawings for Beyogmos, 2014, set to a soundtrack of songs her Vietnamese father has listened to for as long as she can remember. The animation and the delicacy of its imagery, continually connecting and disconnecting, and accompanied by haunting and melancholic sound, is deeply moving.

The animation is part of Mai’s continuing exploration of identity, which took a dramatic and disturbing twist when Pho Dog (2006), her work in the Casula Powerhouse touring exhibition I Love Pho, attracted a bitterly hostile reception from a small group of people. When displayed at Breadbox Gallery, Perth in 2008, nationwide representatives of the organisation Vietnamese Community in Australia objected forcefully. Mai used the notion of a mongrel dog to illustrate and question the meaning of identity, particularly as it applied to her own experience of an Australian Anglo/Irish mother, a Vietnamese father and her early years spent in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

A series of exhibitions followed which were partly responses to this community hostility and an effort to heal their hurt and anger and to free herself from her subsequent sense of isolation and paranoia. Gradually, she was moving on. Beyogmos was developed with her close friend and the exhibition’s curator Gina Fairley, who helped Mai select some of her earlier works from 1998 and encouraged her recognition of the spirituality and science of many of the recurring motifs in her contemporary practice.

In a public conversation between Gina and Mai, at Wollongong Art Gallery, March 5, 2014, both acknowledged the living organic nature of Mai’s work – its simultaneous connectivity, flow and disconnection, and the centrality of the bejewelled, now open, mongrel dog to the whole exhibition. Elements of herself, previously segregated, were now finding connection with other elements in a process she describes as synthesis.

Mai continues to investigate ambiguities in a perpetual exploration of identity of how and what we call ourselves in Australia. When an audience member asked has she found any resolution to her own sense of identity, Mai smiled and said, “Yes, I’m an artist.”

Beyogmos continues at Wollongong Art Gallery until May 25.

Image: Mai Nguyen-Long, Beyogmos, 2014, HDV stills, stop animation, 5 min 11 sec; animation editor: Stuart Horstman; music: “Diem Xua” by Trinh Cong Son, sung by Khanh Ly. (image courtesy the artist and NG Art Gallery.)

Journey with Mai through BEYOGMOS

eimage_Specimen_MaiNguyenLong2013BEYOGMOS is Mai Nguyen Long’s new exhibition of work at Wollongong Art Gallery, opening February 28 and continuing to May 25. Curated by writer Gina Fairley, the exhibition also offers a two day workshop with Mai on creating a personal “spirit map”.

Beyogmos reveals how far Mai has journeyed since her controversial experiences at Casula Powerhouse, described in Chapter 29 of Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney. There she found herself confronting questions of Vietnamese and Australian identity and meaning.

Beyogmos will be opened by Toby Chapman, assistant curator, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Everyone is welcome to attend a conversation between artist and curator, March 5.

Image: Mai Nguyen-Long, Specimen, 2013 – used jars, found and mixed media objects, organic material, liquid, dimensions variable. (image courtesy the artist and NG Art Gallery.)