Visual arts

Lives drifting on the water

Mai Nguyen Thi Thanh is a Vietnamese artist working with various materials and media. One of her main interests is identity, which she explored in an art project with stateless people in Cambodia and Vietnam. Ellen Thalman wrote down Mai’s story in her own words for D+C/E+Z.
"I took photographs of village scenes and painted black silhouettes over the people in the snapshots" Mai Nguyen Thi Thanh / KfW Stiftung "I took photographs of village scenes and painted black silhouettes over the people in the snapshots"

The topic of identity is a personal one for me. I was born in a village near Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam in 1983. My mother and father were also from there. But when I was little, my father took us south for his job in the town of Hué, where I grew up and live now.

All of my childhood, I felt like an outsider. There were local traditions and stories my family did not know. My grandmother and other relatives were far away, and we rarely saw them, so I did not learn the history and stories of my family like children who live near their relatives. I missed a sense of belonging. Even though my father had a job, we did not have much money. My mother was very resourceful, so she found many ways to make some extra cash. We children made envelopes and shelled peanuts, piles of them, to help support the family. But at that time, it was hard for almost every family, not just ours. We weren’t special.

When I was small there was a girl in my neighbourhood who taught children how to draw. She made very colourful, very beautiful drawings and I was always trying to get a peek at them. My father arranged lessons, and later, I always got good marks for drawing in school. So when I finished, I decided to go to the Hué College of Arts to study traditional Vietnamese applied arts. Today, when I am not making art, I teach the traditional art of lacquering wood at Hué University.

In universities in Vietnam, there are no contemporary art studies. In 2003 or 2004, a group of artists came from Germany to hold a workshop on art installations. They organised a group show after the workshop. It was the first time I had encountered contemporary art. But I realised many of the things that occupied me personally could be expressed this way.

In 2012, I received my MA in visual arts from Mahasarakham University in Thailand. In my hometown, however, many people still don’t exactly understand what I do.


Cambodian experience

In 2014, during my residency at an artists’ workspace in Phnom Penh, I heard about a Vietnamese fishing village in central Cambodia; stateless people living on boats in the Tonle Sap lake. I wanted to get to know the people, to hear about their lives and what it meant to live as a perpetual migrant. I wanted to find out why people leave everything behind for a new life, and what it is they have lost along the way.

For generations, small Vietnamese communities have been an ethnic minority in the middle of Cambodia and along the Tonle Sap waterway, which is upriver from the Vietnamese border. They first went to Cambodia in French colonial times, in the 19th century, or even earlier. The village I visited on the lake is made up of around 400 households. The people have no right to own land, so they must live on the water. Every aspect of their daily lives take place on houseboats – their shops and grocery stores, their schooling and filling stations. They move with the storms and get around by motorboat. People make their living from the lake, collecting wild water hyacinths to sell, or fishing. But poor water quality is killing the fish, adding to their insecurity.

Their existence is adrift, as is their lifestyle. Almost all of them have neither passports, nor birth certificates. They have no official identity. Over and over again, the people I spoke with used the phrase “day by day”. They live from one day to the next, with no way to plan for the future. They don’t belong to any nation. They feel alienated and trapped by decisions people made who lived long before they were born. One of them told me, that they are like the hyacinths, floating on the water.

In our conversations, identity cards were a recurring issue. Even though many families have lived in Tonle Sap for generations, they get no documents from the Cambodian government. At most, they have a membership card from the Association of Vietnamese Cambodians.

Many people felt that identity cards would improve their lives – giving them access to health care or education. But documentation has also brought trouble in the past. Families lost their papers or even destroyed them during the brutal regime of Pol Pot  from 1975 until 1979. The Vietnamese in Cambodia had to hide their ethnicity in fear of their lives. Today, some authorities still intimidate these communities, and often demand bribes.

I visited the people of Tonle Sap several times over the course of a year and lived with them for a few weeks at a time. It took a while for them to trust me. I collected many stories and inspiration from their lives. I also collected their photographs, their names and birthdates and old clothing that they gave me. I frequently use recyled materials, so I decided to print identity cards on pieces of their clothing. I thought a lot about what these cards might meant to people, things like power, dreams, a better life or legitimacy and a sense of belonging. The idea was to create something that represented not just concepts, but also put the faces of real people to these ideas.


Somebody cares

I wanted these people to know that somebody cared about them, to share that with other people in the exhibition planned in Phnom Penh. But I had to explain my work to the villagers, and people did not really understand. Many thought I was a journalist. After all, contemporary art was unfamiliar to them.

When I asked if people in the town would help me make the cards, many were scared. They worried it might stir up trouble for the community, as often things are interpreted in a political way. I had to get permission from the village leader. He sent me to the head of the Vietnamese community. In turn, he consulted someone higher up. In the end, no one felt they could make a decision. So the 348 identity cards that told the story of this community were stitched together by people in my village in Vietnam. However, the authorities did allow me to make a film about the houseboat people, hoping it would raise awareness about the lives of Vietnamese in Cambodia.

This film, called Day by Day, and a series of photographs, called Shadow, became part of an exhibition curated by Roger Nelson, shown first at the Sa Sa Bassac art centre in Phnom Penh, and then at the Sao La, at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum in Vietnam earlier this year. This included interviews I conducted in Vietnam in the border town of Long An with people who had returned to Vietnam, but were still stateless for a lack of documents. Many people think their lives will be better when they go back to Vietnam, but also there they have no official identity.

For the Shadow series, I took photographs of village scenes and painted black silhouettes over the people in the snapshots. The blacking out of the figures reminds me of their loss of identity, their lack of a secure place in society, and their uncertain future.

In the exhibtion, I placed the identity cards on a table next to each other. I gave each of the unofficial documents a number starting with many zeros, suggesting that maybe one day there would be cards for the whole world – no politics, no official government stamps and no national identity.

I have myself left my cuntry behind – at least for one year – to go to Europe for the first time in 2015. I am currently a resident at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin on a fellowship from the German KfW Stiftung. On 3 March, I will have a solo show of the work I am doing here.

Mai Nguyen Thi Thanh is a Vietnamese artist currently working at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin on a fellowship from the KfW Stiftung. She told her story to Ellen Thalman, who wrote it down.


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