A new public art commission contemplates the fraught history of Vietnamese shrimpers in the Texas Gulf

Diane Severin Nguyen, Not in this life, 2023. Billboard. Commissioned by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo by Michael Robinson.

In Houston’s Midtown, a new piece of public art by New York- and Los Angeles-based artist Diane Severin Nguyen is visible from US 59 near the San Jacinto onramp and from street level at the intersection of Caroline and Barbee Streets.

Commissioned by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Not in this life (2023) was unveiled on January 2 in the form of a commercial billboard and will remain on view through January 29, 2023.

Depicting two shrimps and text rendered in a calligraphic font, which reads “If Not In This Life,” “Then In Another,” and “Hẹn Kiếp Sau,” Nguyen’s billboard is inspired by the history of Vietnamese immigrant shrimpers in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Galveston Bay, according to CAMH.

As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “armed Klansmen cruised Galveston Bay and practiced guerrilla tactics at secret paramilitary camps,” in an effort to destroy Vietnamese-Americans’ fishing businesses and eliminate competition to white fishermen. The KKK burned boats, terrorized families, and used intimidation tactics like cross-burnings and figures hung in effigy. This led to the 1981 court case Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association v. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – a significant win for the Asian American community, ending the KKK’s violent and racist harassment of Vietnamese fishermen.

Nguyen’s billboard draws upon this history [of Vietnamese shrimping] and the polarized political climate in which we find ourselves. Employing a popular romantic Vietnamese phrase, “hẹn kiếp sau,” which loosely translates to “we will meet in the next fate,” Nguyen’s work is equally mournful, hopeful, and comical in its pairing of image and text, which suggest two shrimps as those fated for love on another astral plane.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Not in this life was made specifically for the billboard as a site,” said Rebecca Matalon, Senior Curator at CAMH, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. “The image was created with the context of Houston in mind, and of course the context of a commercial billboard located along a major highway.”

Drawn to Nguyen’s “stunning, surreal” photographs in exhibitions in LA and New York, Matalon says that CAMH invited the artist to create the billboard as way for her to experiment with a very different scale and context.

Nguyen’s billboard is presented in conjunction with her first solo museum exhibition, Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS – featuring a video installation, photographs, and a site-specific architectural intervention – on view at CAMH through February 26.

“Her work across spaces and mediums really asks us, as viewers, to consider states of transformation, including those associated with diaspora and transnational Asian identity,” said Matalon of Nguyen’s artwork.

“But her works are also fundamentally about what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a subject under capitalism, and the immense power and potential held by youth,” Matalon added.

CAMH will present the panel discussion, “Difference and Diaspora: Transnational Asian Identity in Art,” featuring Diane Severin Nguyen and local Houston artists Anh Hà Bùi, Matt Manalo, and Preetika Rajgariah on Thursday, January 26. Moderated by Dr. Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, Assistant Professor of English at Rice University, the event is free and open to the public.

Not in this life marks Nguyen’s first public art commission – and continues CAMH’s engagement over the decades with public art, which has included a work on a blimp in 1972 by the late Michael Snow, a billboard by Marilyn Minter in 2015, and a project with Nathaniel Donnett along the fenced exterior of CAMH in 2020.

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