In the last few weeks, as another refugee surge puts pressure on governmental and aid organization resources and renders the life of millions of Ukrainians unrecognizable, artist Phung Huynh sits in one of Los Angeles’ mom-and-pop donut shops. In this shop, run by immigrants from Cambodia, Huynh imagines a project to honour these same Cambodian immigrants, known as "Khmericans", who survived the aftermath of warfare and genocide, and to give her support to the current migrant crisis.
As we face a global emergency of unprecedented numbers, with Putin’s war creating four million refugees in a matter of weeks and estimates showing climate migrants’ numbers rising close to two billion, both Europe and America seem to be, for a time, open to the wave of people seeking asylum. Although many reports show that European leaders are loosening the previous hardened migration policies, discrimination against refugees from the Middle East and Africa, even the ones living in Ukraine, is still an ongoing matter.
Nevertheless, events of this scale present a critical opportunity to unstick long-held policies and mentalities — something that the solo show by Huynh entitled Donut (W)hole, recently opened at Self Help Graphics and Art, aims to reflect, highlighting the changes and prejudices that migrants face when entering a new culture and society.
The donut box series draws on the artist's skills in painting and photography, reflecting on the evolution of her pictorial methods that have steadily investigated family history and traditions. The most widely noted aspect of this project is the stories of survival, resilience, and family unity through the lenses of the first and second generation “Donut Kids” — Khmericans who grew up in their family's donut shop. The body of serigraph prints with a pop art style on pink cardboard donut boxes represents a cultural atmosphere of immigrants and refugees and their daily lives.
"These donut shops represent a cultural space where refugees and immigrants reshape their lives in the process of negotiating, assimilating and becoming American," Huynh writes. “I have a very complicated relationship to photographs and portraits because when we left, we couldn't bring any photos with us, and we use photographs to worship our ancestors."
Now an Associate Professor of Art at Los Angeles Valley College and an artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles County's Office of Immigrant Affairs with numerous exhibitions all over the city, from the Los Angeles Zoo to Los Angeles County's USC Medical Center, Huynh continues to celebrate her parent's resilience and bravery and that of numerous other families like theirs who still face discrimination by white supremacists.
"There's a lot of struggle and pain," she says. "I feel that for a lot of survivors, specifically of the Khmer Rouge genocide, there's a lot of guilt. There's a lot of guilt for being able to come to the United States and leaving family behind. There are a lot of family back home who weren't able to come."
The significance of this exhibition reaches many areas, but chief among them is the searing reminder that refugees often do not migrate by choice and face many linguistic and cultural barriers when entering new cultures and countries. Therefore, there is a need to reflect on the current European and American preconceptions against non-white ethnicities. As such, Huynh’s inspiration, creative practice and projects address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and Reduced Inequalities.
"When generational trauma is not even a generation away from experiencing what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Afghanistan are undergoing right now,” the artist states. "That's what I'm interested in exploring. But donuts matter. Even a fleeting pleasure — that's good. That's what trauma teaches you. Like, pleasure and joy are fundamental."
In many ways, exhibitions like Huynh’s inspire hope for a more understanding society, though many humanitarians doubt that the sudden change toward Ukraine refugees will revise the xenophobic policies that hinder the fighting chance for the millions of migrants still risking their lives on the Mediterranean to make it to America and Europe.
See more of Phung Huynh's work here.