Hương Ngô, Cuộc bế dâu/ The sea turns into mulberry fields and the mulberry field turns into the sea, 2021. Archival pigment print on Hahnemüehle paper. Installation view: Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow, 2021–22. Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy Prospect New Orleans. Photo: Alex Marks


by Hương Ngô and Erica Vermette

Hương Ngô is an artist currently based in Chicago whose work spans a variety of mediums and formal approaches, grounded in research-based practices that examine the archive as a form.

Institutions where her work has been exhibited include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the New Museum in New York, and the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Hương was awarded a Fulbright U.S.Scholar Grant in 2016, is a two-time recipient of the 3Arts Award, and has been featured in the Prague Biennial (2005) and the Prospect.5 Triennial (2021), among other awards and honors.

She is currently an Assistant Professor in Contemporary Practices at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a visiting lecturer at University of California Santa Barbara.

Hương was interviewed via email by Arts Editor Erica Vermette over the course of spring 2023.

Can you tell us about yourself?


My name is Hương Ngô, and I am an interdisciplinary artist, a mother, and a teacher. My family is originally from Vietnam, but they left after the war and settled in North Carolina. I was born in Hong Kong, where we stayed for almost two years in different refugee camps. I began my studies in the sciences, but eventually found that art was much better suited to help me investigate questions that I had about the world around me.


It’s interesting to me to hear that you started out in sciences, because a lot of your work seems to take a very scientific approach—collecting and cataloging data, building archives—can I ask what you studied specifically and what your early fascinations were?


I was studying biology and specifically interested in genetics. I had an interest in evolution from an early age—I think that fed into larger questions about difference and how it is constructed. Yes, this absolutely explains a gravitation towards collecting, archiving, and a general curiosity about materials. I’ve been returning to many printmaking processes and thinking about how they mirror DNA replication. No wonder printmaking feels like returning home!


That makes so much sense to me, looking at your work!


With regards to biology—in Cuộc bế dâu, mulberry branches are a reference to attempts by French colonizers to exploit the Vietnamese people and landscape economically, and in multiple explorations of language, you use bird calls as a motif. In both cases, these are lenses through which to explore the experience of colonized and displaced people. What has your relationship to nature and landscape been for you personally throughout your life? What does displacement mean to you, and how do you navigate it?


It never occurred to me before, but I think immersing myself in nature was my refuge from the effects of displacement. I remember spending hours outdoors, just exploring. I grew up at a time when it wasn’t strange to just wander around alone as a small child—I remember doing it as early as five years old. There is something so freeing about being able to just get lost and then reorient myself by creeks and trees. I think other kids were going to camp or soccer practice, but I would build structures outside or learn bird calls.


It was such a different relationship with land than the one that dominated my life, which was my national identity and immigration status. I was so lucky to have had that kind of experience, but I realize that relationship is fraught for BIPOC folks who associate nature with trauma, dispossession, or the feeling of not being safe, because of histories of colonization and displacement. I think that is why I have been asking how colonial histories affect our relationship with nature and decolonizing that, starting in my own body.


So much of your work deals with language, and the role it plays in the experience of identity, particularly for multilingual immigrant families. The intersection of language and identity is a topic of particular interest in Franco-American circles—could you outline a bit of your own personal history with language and how it has impacted your experience?

Hương Ngô, The Voice Is an Archive, 2016, single-channel digital video, black & white, sound, 6 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

I grew up in a multilingual household at a time when that wasn’t valued by larger American culture. My mother speaks primarily in Vietnamese and my father in Vietnamese and English, while he is also fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. This meant that on a daily basis, there were many pockets of understanding and not understanding that I learned to navigate. I learned to pick up on context clues, key words and phrases, and to code switch from the English context of school to home life.


Nevertheless, these skills are all very helpful not only in navigating the very racialized spaces in the US, but also when traveling and living in foreign countries. I lived in France and Vietnam, and I was able to immerse myself in the cultures and languages of both places. Navigating is not just a matter of verbal communication, but it is also active listening, reading the room, really connecting. At first, I was incredibly upset whenever I made the slightest mistakes, but all of the stress of perfect communication leads to very dull conversation! Finding my personality in each language was a matter of injecting humor, playing, and honoring my specific position as an insider and outsider.


As a child, it was often stressful and confusing to be in a multilingual environment, mostly because fluency was expected as part of our identities as being Vietnamese. Anything less than fluent was failure. I made The Voice Is an Archive as a rebuttal to that idea. What if you can see these differences in fluency and find value, and reimagine our bodies as archives of embodied and multigenerational knowledge?

Raising my son with English, French, and Vietnamese is not without its challenges, but it gives me a daily insight into the creative potential of language. He mixes the languages all the time and conjugates Vietnamese verbs like English verbs. He is very playful and has created an imaginary language with his closest friend at school. It’s boundless and borderless.

Hương Ngô, And we are still here…but we are still here, 2021. Hectographs. Installation view: Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow, 2021–22. Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy Prospect New Orleans. Photo: Alex Marks

When I was approached to be a part of Prospect.5, the triennial art event that happens in New Orleans, I started by doing some research in the area and was impressed by its history of languages, even having the Choctow name Bulbancha, meaning place of many tongues. I wanted to incorporate that into the work somehow, so I had the simple statements “And, we are still here” and “But, we are still here,” translated into related dialects/orthographics of Louisiana Creole (by Thomas Klingler) and Kouri-Vini (by Jonathan Joseph Mayers). I thought this would be a relatively simple task, but found that it dug into important and still debated questions about language and identity here in this area, still today.


What was it like to live in France as a Vietnamese person, with that colonial history? What was it like living in Vietnam, with a personal and generational history of displacement?


I think I was first struck by the ethnic diversity that I experienced in France, especially in metropolitan areas. It doesn’t take long to connect the different immigrant and refugee groups in France with the former colonies, especially across Africa and Asia. So you have, in the everyday, these reminders of the colonial legacy of France. It is when I was living there that I really internalized the statement, “We Are Here Because You Were There,” originally coined in the 1980s by Ambalavaner Sivanandan in relation to England’s colonial history. Similarly, in the US, our waves of immigrants follow patterns related to US history of imperial violence and power.


As I met Vietnamese immigrants in France, I also realized the differences between the two contexts. In the US, most of the Vietnamese immigrants came right after or very soon after the fall of Saigon, mostly from the south of Vietnam. France has experienced a number of waves of immigration from all over Vietnam, from early colonial times of mostly students or young professionals, to nationalist and political activists like Ho Chi Minh himself, to refugees after the war and, more recently, students and immigrant workers. There are Vietnamese families who have been in France for generations, and politics represented across the board. I remember being shocked going to an event in France where they were flying the Vietnamese national flag. In the US, that flag is almost exclusively seen as the communist flag and would evoke riots and protests if it were flown in public. I was able to talk about Vietnam's history more freely in France.


I was also able to observe how history and identity are embedded in the language and approached temporally in different ways between the US and France. In the US, we are very much used to having “hyphenated identities.” For instance, I might say that I am Vietnamese-Chinese-American or Asian-American, depending on the context. In France, you would not say that you are French-Vietnamese, but that you are French d’origine Vietnamienne, or of Vietnamese origin. This places your other identity or identities in the past with your French nationality as present and dominant.

Hương Ngô, In the Shadow of the Future, 2018, Architectural installation with three-channel video, plants, hypertufa, reinforced concrete. Installation view: 4th Ward Project Space. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in France, you know that cultural and ethnic background do matter to the French and resonate in the present day. While being French does guarantee certain rights and privileges, French nationality must still be embodied in a racialized world, which Frantz Fanon wrote about quite powerfully. There are a growing number of French citizens who are embracing their other identities these days, including their cuisine, languages, and cultural or religious norms, some of which can still be absorbed into French identity, some of which are contested.


In the US, the hyphenated identities foreground multicultural aspirations and realities, but also might overly reduce your identity to the boundaries of racial makeup. Using hyphenations is also a form in which you have agency over the way in which you identify yourself. Both approaches have had their benefits and drawbacks, but to me are interesting linguistic windows into the way that each country tries to negotiate its histories of  colonization, imperialism, and slavery.

Hương Ngô, In Passing I, 2017. Pigment-printed silk habotai, custom armature. Installation view: To Name It Is to See It, 2017, DePaul Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

There's also the negotiation that happens in cultural institutions. In France, cultural ruins of colonial history are often still laid bare for anyone to see. The ruins of the colonial exposition of 1931, which spanned the Bois de Vincennes and the Palais de la Porte Dorée, for example, can still be visited. You can see the propagandistic bas-reliefs and murals at the Palais de la Porte Dorée that promote the project of colonization, contextualized with layers of didactics that shift in tone through the decades. In the Bois de Vincennes, you can still tour the miniaturized versions of vernacular architecture of France's colonies, like the Pavilions of Indochina, Tunisia, and Morocco, amongst others, which once were displayed with people from the colonies as a human zoo. In the US, that history is more likely to be covered up and razed and forgotten.


Being in Vietnam as an American of Vietnamese and Chinese diaspora (with parents who grew up in Northern Vietnam), I found that I was often negotiating many layers of history and politics. While many outsiders perceive Vietnam as being united against a common enemy, whether that is the US, France, or its historic enemy of China, there is still so much tension between North and South Vietnam that is rarely spoken about. They are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically really different from one another, and tensions still exist from after the war. No matter where I go in Vietnam, I am an outsider, so a lot of my attention was devoted to reading the context that I found myself in, whether that was doing a lecture at a university, visiting an archive, or seeing a family member, and code switching for that particular context. Growing up in the south in the US really prepared me for that, but also meeting Vietnamese people who had some of those different histories and understanding where they were coming from.


I was in Vietnam last as a Fulbright Scholar, which is so different from my past visits where I was traveling for personal reasons. I felt more of the weight of my privilege there and the responsibility of the access that I had to institutions like national archives. I think that is why my exhibition at The Factory was so meaningful to me. It was my way to give back some of what I had learned and experienced.


I am the youngest of six children. In Vietnamese, I was always em, or younger sibling, to everyone. Vietnam is an incredibly young country with a baby boom that happened only after much recovery after the war. When I was in Vietnam, it was the only time I was called chị, or older sister. It is strange what language can do to you. I felt a greater responsibility and connection to the younger artists and always try to mentor and support them as much as I can. I always have a number of Vietnamese students every term, and I feel an unspoken connection with them right away.


Can you talk a little bit about navigating the COVID-19 pandemic? How has it affected your art practice and personal life? As an artist whose work delves deeply into questions of labor and power structures, what do you think about the national conversations that grew out of the pandemic about our collective relationship to labor in the U.S.?

Hương Ngô, Khuất Dạng / Lost from View, Installation view (2020). The Factory, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Courtesy of the artist. Photos: The Factory

The pandemic made me remember why I began making art, which was to connect with other people. I was not able to attend so many exhibitions that I was a part of during the pandemic, and it almost felt like the exhibition didn’t happen. I was supposed to go to Vietnam for the solo exhibition at The Factory in Saigon, which opened in June of 2020. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for me to bring my archival project back to Vietnam where the project began and to the people with whom I most wanted to share the work and these important historical documents. I wrote about my experience of making art during the pandemic for an online publication Where We Are: When the Time Comes?, organized by Dương Mạnh Hùng and the feminist publication Gantala Press.1


Meanwhile though, I was also part of active and fruitful movements in the US around Black Lives Matter and labor rights during the pandemic. I was teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as tenure-track faculty in the department of Contemporary Practices. As a department, we were having discussions over Zoom during the depths of the lockdown around our own personal health, the national conversation on race, police brutality, and the unrest within our own school. I was proud that as a department, we banded around a cause to support organizers to attempt to get police out of Chicago Public Schools.2 This solidarity then translated to a department-wide anti-racism committee, which I was proud to be a leader in for the rest of time time at SAIC, and which served as a blueprint for the school-wide anti-racism committee.


Of course, these conversations were happening throughout the US in almost every institution, and were spoken of in relationship to labor and the uneven toll that was paid by BIPOC essential workers during the pandemic. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, my collaborator Hồng-Ân and I canceled a performance in solidarity with the workers laid off from the museum at the time.3 At the same time there were also incidences of violence against Asian Americans throughout the US, brought on by Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric. The Asian American art community in Chicago began to gather and organize, mostly thanks to efforts by Greg Bae, a truly beloved artist in our community whom we recently lost.4 At least from my perspective, artists were connecting and organizing more than I had ever experienced.


I have a small child who was eight months old during lockdown. We kept him at home for a full year while my partner and I taught over Zoom. At the beginning of the pandemic, pets and children crossed our Zoom grids and we talked about the healthy intrusion of our personal lives into our work. Zoom events brought issues of accessibility into the fore as we found ways to connect and revealed the ways that traditional art events were exclusionary. As we have returned to some kind of normalcy, I wonder if any lessons of the pandemic might remain. I think we are still processing the collective trauma, but I do hope it doesn’t come with collective amnesia.


What are some things you’re currently working on, or areas of interest you’re looking to explore?

Hương Ngô, Latent Images, 2021. Unfixed Van Dyke photographs on custom armature. Installation view: Prospect.5: Yesterday we said tomorrow, 2021–22. Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy Prospect New Orleans. Photo: Alex Marks

I recently taught a class at UCSB based around material exploration, particularly in printmaking processes. We made our own inks for printmaking from natural materials and metals, and also explored composite materials like reinforced plasters and bioplastics. It was the perfect platform to share and further develop material exploration from my studio. I'm hoping to combine these material explorations with experimental processes and my archive-based conceptual practice in an upcoming project called Ungrafted that will exhibit at Colorado Springs Fine Art Center in the spring of 2024.


My departure point for this project is a set of colonial photographs from French Indochina documenting trees in a plantation. Each photograph is labeled by the grafted tree in the foreground. Unnamed, but entirely present in each image is an indigenous figure standing by the tree for scale. These photographs catalyzed my inquiry into colonial practices of agriculture and embedded perspectives on the natural world. Grafts, an apt metaphor for colonial exploitation, have been used for over 4 centuries. While they can happen accidentally, they are often very intentional interventions by humans. More recently, grafting has been used as emergency solutions to save crops from diseases that have devastated monocultures, a single species farmed to the detriment of biodiversity.


For Prospect.5 in New Orleans, I worked with the archive photographs by reprinting them as unfixed Van Dyke prints, leaving them open to flux over time and exposure to light. This has led me to ask how one treats photographs that document violence and exploitation of labor and how I might create a space of tenderness and care for the people depicted in them. I conceive of “Ungrafting” as a visual vocabulary inspired by our natural world that emphasizes reciprocity and interdependence over dominance and exploitation.


While art history often emphasizes a fixed, final form that offers an immediate, visual encounter, the strategies in this project emphasize the invisible, slow, and changing as essential for unpacking different ways of knowing and being. In my past work, I have utilized invisible ink, fugitive dyes, unfixed photos, and mark-making processes that sit on the edge of visibility as a way to call attention to that which is invisible or has been rendered outside of our registration as a society. I want to further explore those processes, which have often been eliminated by cultural collections and archives due to their unruly qualities.


I am also interested in connecting these ecological histories with those of political struggle, particularly feminist histories from my earlier research on women involved in the anti-colonial movement. Unpacking these histories together could help me understand them as intersecting and as already always intertwined.


I've found that conversations around sustainability are often relegated to worlds of technology (where new inventions might save us), or academic landscapes still dominated by Western thought, unquestioning of their colonial origins. My hope for this new work is for viewers to make those connections between questions of the environment and those of colonial ideology and exploitation. In my archival research, those matrices of thought are laid bare: colonized people, lands, and goods, are spoken of, represented, and valued similarly. I hope that through a quiet intensity, my work can draw attention to those linkages, attuning the viewer to find others right in front of their eyes.

To see more of Hương’s work, visit