By Alana Lazdins.
In his exhibition, My Dad the People Smuggler, Australian artist Phuong Ngo recounts through film, interview and photography the story of the Vietnamese diaspora caused by the military victory of the Vietnam People’s Army in Saigon, and the subsequent rise of communism in 1975.
Ngo’s father helped refugees to flee communist Vietnam, travel across the South China Sea and seek safety in Malaysia. Ultimately Ngo’s father, mother and brother escaped Vietnam to be processed as refugees at Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast of Terengganu that was established as a refugee camp in 1978 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Between 1975-1991, Bidong Island housed over 250,000 Vietnamese refugees, many of whom had to wait several years before being relocated to a surrounding island.
(Ngo’s) works present the image of the people smuggler as humane, to counter the politically driven fallacy that the smuggler is ‘evil’.
The two photographic books displayed in the middle of the gallery poignantly emphasise the central role of ‘narrative’ throughout Ngo’s work. One book tells the story of Ngo’s mother prior to her exodus from Vietnam, the other of his father’s childhood and schooling. Halfway through the books, the pictures and texts become identical as the lives of Ngo’s mother and father become beautifully intertwined to form one story.
Similarly, through ink-jet prints the artist chronicles the changing landscape of Bidong Island. The photographs are arranged in three layers: the top depicts Bidong Island as a utopic and untouched setting; the middle displays reproduced photographs of Ngo’s family inhabiting the Island as refugees; and the final layer shows the skeletal remains of walls, buildings and temples that once formed the infrastructure of refugee facilities being reclaimed by nature.
Alongside a film featuring a taped interview with his father, Ngo has displayed a large print of his father, simply titled Ngo Minh Hoang (Dad). These two works present the image of the people smuggler as humane, to counter the politically driven fallacy that the smuggler is ‘evil’. Moreover, these works allows Ngo to document the experience of both people smuggler and refugee.
The My Dad the People Smuggler exhibition is open at Counihan Gallery until Sunday 5 May.
Artist Phuong Ngo will give an artists talk on Saturday April 27 in conversation with Duong Thuy Nguyen, whose father also arranged for refugees to leave Vietnam and enter Malaysia.