Brandon Tho Harris identifies as a Houston-based interdisciplinary artist. Harris’ work examines the discourse surrounding the Vietnamese diaspora, post-Vietnam War, in the context of the Vietnamese population in Houston, Texas. Through his own lived experience as the child of refugees, Harris offers a critical lens through which one can view the Vietnamese diaspora — one that is viewed through the understanding and negotiation of intergenerational trauma and the promotion of a continuous dialogue based upon kinship and healing.
Harris explores this sentiment in his 2019 exhibition “Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here”, providing an intimate look inside the Vietnamese war and the Vietnamese refugees who were subsequently displaced. In Vietnamese, Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here is written as: Mẹ Việt Nam ơi, Chúng Con Vẫn Còn đây. As Harris describes it, the exhibition explores “notions of home, labour and erasure.”
“Oh Mother Vietnam” is primarily a virtual exhibition with interactive components, including videos and photos coupled with stories and interviews. When one first enters, we are greeted by an interesting interactive Google Maps display — a display of what one would assume to be the artist’s childhood home.
Research for this exhibition was conducted at various sites pertaining to the Vietnamese diaspora. Sites in Seabrook, Texas, old and new Chinatowns, village apartments, and his family’s homes throughout Houston.
The first half of the “Oh Mother Vietnam” exhibition consists of images on a wall as well as video and a physical exhibition of a ship at sea (as seen below.)
The images are laid out in a collage-like fashion, and juxtaposed in a visually-pleasing manner. Photos, a map, a magazine print and news articles dot the wall, enabling the viewer to visualise the trajectory of the Vietnam war while putting a face to the tragedy and the lives lost.
The boat sits atop a bed of rocks, the ropes dangling from the sides. In the back, a projector plays a video.
A physical image of a boat represents the obvious: the hardships faced by the Vietnamese refugees who fled the war by sea, via boat. The boat is composed of various remnants: cloth, wooden planks, and what looks to be string. This assemblage represents the little scraps of what was left of their lives after the war, the refugees having salvaged what little they had to rebuild their lives in a new country.
On the inside of the boat one can see a physical representation of the remnants of the refugees’ lives — what they brought with them on their journey. Leaf hats (called nón lá in Vietnamese,) books, incense, suitcases and various pieces of cloth.
One image featured in the exhibition stands out amongst the others. It is particularly jarring in that it features the tagline: “Shock, pain, and hysterical wonder.” The image depicts what one would presume to be a family: a mother holding her children, a husband by her side in fear. The black and white effect on the photo further intensifies that sentiment.
Brandon Tho Harris’ work speaks specifically to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in particular #3 Good Health & Well-Being and #16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Both goals beget the other. His work in furthering the dialogue of reconciliation and understanding amongst the Vietnamese population stimulates not only justice, but healing. Healing in turn aids in one’s good health and wellbeing. Particularly in the context of the diaspora, as many refugees may have unaddressed trauma and/or PTSD.
“Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here” is a beautiful ode to the legacy of the Vietnam War and the lives that it came to affect. Although tragic, Brandon Tho Harris finds beauty in opening a dialogue centered upon survivorship, compassion and growth. Through this, he comes to solidify his own identity as a child of war refugees, accepts the past, and bravely faces the present. Ultimately, “Oh Mother Vietnam” inspires with its restorative message of community, healing and kinship.
View more of Harris’ work here.