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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.