Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong

Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương, The Opposite of Looking is Not Invisibility. The Opposite of Yellow is Not Gold, 2016, mixed media. Installation view, SPACES, Cleveland, 2018. Photo: Jerry Mann.

Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương’s work The Opposite of Looking is Not Invisibility. The Opposite of Yellow is Not Gold, 2016, pairs vernacular photographs of the artists’ mothers with texts from 1970s-era US congressional hearings regarding Vietnamese refugees. It is featured in “Being: New Photography 2018,” which will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from March 18 to August 19, 2018. Here, the artists discuss the political and personal impetuses behind their approach and how race, gender, and labor are often made invisible in cultural narratives.

VERNACULAR PHOTOGRAPHY speaks to what is missing. What is posed or placed in front of the camera is deemed to be important, but also significant is that which is purposely left out.

Our work The Opposite of Looking is Not Invisibility. The Opposite of Yellow is Not Gold began with us sharing our recollections as Vietnamese American women who grew up in the US. We actually started by tracing the kinds of jobs that our mothers held when our families first arrived in the country in the late 1970s, and how changing industries and labor forces affected their jobs amid the economic shifts of the 1980s. Drawing on Iyko Day’s book Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism, we wanted to address how, historically, Asian bodies and their labor have been racialized in order to perpetuate the nativist narrative that plays out over and over again in the US when it comes to immigrants, refugees, and the economy. We wanted to explore these two seemingly disparate threads: the invisible histories of Asian American families and the broader national imperative in which war, the economy, and labor are bound up with each other.

We searched popular visual culture for images of Vietnamese Americans, but it turns out that public visual records have rarely included images of Asian Americans. So, we turned instead to the domestic archive and searched our own family albums for photographs of our mothers working as a way of making our mothers’ labor visible vis-à-vis the racialized body. We realized there was a common vernacular language at play in both of our families, and we began to pair up photographs in which our mothers’ labor had been erased, made hypervisible, or rendered invisible through their embodied performance as the successful refugee or the loving caretaker. For example, in one pairing, each of our mothers holds a baby, evoking the classical image of the serene maternal figure. In another sequence, our mothers are standing next to big American cars in their Sunday best. We realized there was something powerful in using these unaltered photographs because they allowed us to question how they were overdetermined.

Excerpts from an interview with Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong

We created this work in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, and we wanted our images to point to the way in which nations frame humanitarian causes in interrelated racial, cultural, and economic terms—a project cast into stark relief against the virulent anti-immigrant policies and anti-refugee sentiment intensifying in the Trump era. In moments such as this, the larger identity of the nation is always at stake, and its precarious logic of inclusion and belonging is contested. We alternated the family photographs with excerpts from congressional hearings about the Vietnamese refugee crisis in the 1970s in order to show concretely how the US was framing people like our families—and, more specifically, how our bodies were being understood economically in terms of labor and resources. The juxtaposition also forces the viewer to confront these everyday images of Vietnamese people in the banal and familiar language of vernacular family photography and to contend with their own (mis)recognition of these bodies. Today, as the violent white supremacist ideologies that have always undergirded our society are violently erupting throughout daily American life, we felt a need to assert these images of our families—to be proud of them and claim them as part of a national and diasporic narrative in the face of the cancerous myths of exclusionary whiteness that have perpetuated American nativism.

So, this work addresses the question of what is missing: What becomes legible within a culture that controls its cultural narrative so tightly in order to sustain white supremacy? Growing up in the US as refugees, we were taught to be ashamed of our upbringing—our experiences being nonwhite, being working class, and speaking another language at home; all of these things were not valued. To address the fact that Asian American identities have very little to no currency in contemporary US culture, we wanted to create this project that on its own would forge a material legacy. This concept is also reflected in the title of the work, The Opposite of Looking is Not Invisibility. The Opposite of Yellow is Not Gold. American identity is often defined against a chosen enemy of the historical moment—for example, European colonial powers, Japanese imperialists, communist decolonial forces, Soviet expansionism. “We’re this, not that.” The title of the work questions negation and the way it is used in establishing power and identity.

The US congressional transcript excerpts are physically etched and burned into paper, yet they are separated from the viewer by highly reflective glass. The photographs are sumptuously printed on velvety paper, evoking a depth and tangibility that goes far beyond their flat surfaces. In Vietnamese, the same word—“vàng”—is used for both “yellow” and “gold.” It is associated with wealth and prosperity, as well as happiness and change. The racial signification of this color, and the oft-forgotten labor of Asian immigrants that has historically contributed to the economic strength of the US, were not lost on us.