Artist Kim Lý considers dual identity in Vietnam, the Ozarks in Springdale exhibit

Artist Kim Lý considers dual identity in Vietnam, the Ozarks in Springdale exhibit
April Wallace

“Ozark Home, Beyond the Frame” is an exhibit of contemporary art and items of home life from a wide array of Northwest Arkansas artists. Curated by Samantha Sigmon and Cory Perry, with organizing help from Deena R. Owens and Dana Holoroyd, the exhibit is shown over two locations, The Medium and Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, both in Springdale.

Artist Kim Lý’s installation “Return Home” is a 6-by-6-foot colorful canvas collage that seems to invite viewers to sit and take in the work, which includes portraits of her Vietnamese family members taken on a night of celebration. Lý answered a few questions about it for The Free Weekly.

Q. First off, tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? What’s home for you?

A. Born in 1994 in Fort Smith, I identify as a Vietnamese American female artist who seeks ways to represent my own lived experience. My work focuses on the concept of transnationality, where people feel they belong in more than one place or culture simultaneously.

My parents were born and raised in the South of Vietnam and later immigrated to Fort Smith on their individual journeys. My brother and I were born and raised in the Ozarks. And I have continued living and working here as of today, but I always felt somewhat out of place. I don’t feel that I’m from the Ozarks, and I don’t feel that I’m from Vietnam. To me, home resides within a space that is not marked by physical borders or territory.

We live in a world where migration creates a hybrid mixture between cultures and challenges traditional concepts of identity, nationality, and nation. I make art to process and share my transnational experience as a way of introspection and to contribute to the larger story of migration.

This most recent work, “Return Home,” addresses my internal conflict of what I consider home.

Q. Would you describe your work for me?

A. On the gallery wall sits a 6-by-6-foot colorful canvas painted with a repeating metallic pattern that is inspired by the iridescent ceilings commonly seen in the homes of Vietnam.

A portrait of my father sits at the center of this installation while being surrounded by his sister (to his left) and his nieces standing over them. Other family members and painted images of objects and nature that make up what I consider “home” cover the remainder of the canvas.

The 120 film portraits in this installation were taken with a Mamiya C22 on the patio of the house of Có Sáu (my Aunt 6) where I stayed for my visit to Vietnam in January. In the background of these portraits, a round table and plastic red stools provide a space for communal activity over beer, food and conversation.

The installation includes a 3D printed stool sitting on a multicolored shelf with a gold edge and two plastic life-size stools for visitors to sit on.

Q. What is the significance of the red stool?

A. The tales of Vietnamese refugees and their community in Fort Smith are not included when one looks up “Ozark culture,” but in the late 1970s, Fort Chaffee was a temporary home to over 50,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Fort Smith, many of whom chose to stay. “Return Home” asks: “Where do these stories exist in the larger picture of the Ozarks?”

The plastic red stool is an integral part of collectivist life in Vietnam and is the anchor point at which these photos were taken. This pivotal piece of furniture is often seen on the streets of Vietnam and in people’s homes where guests are invited to sit and eat.

Southern Vietnam and the Ozarks have similar cultural values that revolve around family and communal meals. Spending time with my family in Fort Smith and in Trà Vinh often involved sitting around a round table and sharing food no matter what time of day it was. “Return Home” explores this cultural aspect while representing objects and people that make up what I consider “home.”

In this space that I’ve created, I invite you to sit with my family, my home.

Q. How did you get the idea for this work? You made a trip to Vietnam to see family early this year. Did you have the idea before you left, or did it come up while you were there?

A. For a while, I had been yearning to expand on my previous art installation from 2016-2018, “Memories of a Vietnamese-American Woman.” Like my new installation, this was also a large mixed media wall collage that focused on the concept of transnationalism and cultural identity.

I made travel plans in August to visit my extended family in Vietnam for the first time in nine years. I ran into Samantha at Pearl’s Books sometime in the fall of 2022 when she mentioned that she was working on curating a new show.

(By) December, I started thinking about my old family portraits living in stick and peel albums. I saw my upcoming trip as an opportunity to reconnect with family members and update the portraits of those who were still alive.

In January, I (made the trip) where I gathered with extended family, welcomed the Lunar New Year and celebrated multiple birthdays including mine.

My friend Shannon accompanied me … and we talked about our individual experiences of being with my family in real time, which further inspired me to explore and reflect on my transnational identity as a Southern woman in both Vietnam and Arkansas.

Near the end of the trip … on the night of the family’s communal birthday celebration, I shot portraits of every family member present using my Mamiya C22 film camera.

When I returned to my home in Arkansas in February, I started thinking through how my collage process could uplift the family portraits and form my definition of “home.”

Q. In general terms, how did you create this/these works? Are these the typical materials you would ordinarily work with?

A. I’ve been wrapped up in film photography since college, when I took my first film photography class in 2013. This medium feels like “home” to me because I worked with it for so long. Also, film photography has held sentimental value in my family for as long as I can remember.

When my brother was born on Mother’s Day 1992 at St. Edward Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, my parents were gifted with a Nikon film camera. From that time forward, my father often took photographs of us as we were growing up. My extended family from across the Pacific Ocean would often exchange photos with us through snail mail. The photos were living archival records of the people who were near and dear to my heart despite being physically distant.

I discovered my collage process in 2015-2016. It was a scary medium to me at first, but now I see it as a tool that metaphorically speaks to my transnational identity that is not defined by physical borders or territory.

Q. What is its overall significance to you? What do you hope others will understand about it, or take away from it?

A. I hope that people will sit within my installation and take a closer look at the people, objects and nature represented. The concept of transnationalism is not often talked about, but is pertinent in modern society as we are constantly moving between borders and cultures through the means of modern technology. I also hope that people might think more broadly about Ozark culture and how it is represented as marginalized communities are not often represented.



‘Ozark Home’

WHEN — Until June 4 at The Medium and throughout 2023 at Shiloh Museum of Ozark History

WHERE — Springdale

COST — Free


Categories: Galleries