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Refugee Artists Display the Pain of Powerlessness

November 08, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

Chi Le can't blot out gruesome memories of the night that rocket fire destroyed her village. Phi Loc weeps over the loss of a teen-age son washed overboard during a lunge for freedom in a small fishing boat. Hanh Thi Pham fights a sense that her identity evaporated in the United States.

All three are Southeast Asian refugees. All three are Southern California artists. Their work is included in "Artist/Refugee," an exhibit of 35 drawings, photographs, paintings and embroideries by about 15 artists (the show includes four unsigned tapestries) on display at Chapman College's Guggenheim Gallery through Dec. 4. The show catalogues the sufferings of displaced Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians--the lingering nightmare of war, the pain of forced departure, the ambivalence of life in a new world.

"Documentation of what happened to these people is a great deal of the value of the show," said Richard Turner, director of the gallery and a teacher of Asian art history at the college. "Even with pieces that are not my aesthetic favorites, I find room in my appreciation to accept that this is a historical record of these experiences."

The show has no common aesthetic, beyond most works' autobiographical roots.

Chi Le, of Westminster, could not be more emotionally explicit than in her quiltlike wall hanging of severed quasi-human body parts called "Butcher Shop." But Phi Loc, also of Westminster, held back personal feeling from his highly formalized painting of the boat that carried him from Vietnam. The photographs of Hanh Thi Pham, 31, of Rialto, dramatize the psychological trauma of adapting to a new home by blending pictures of herself and various official identity cards.

Three New England photographers have contributed pictures--factual, mutedly emotional portraits--of Cambodian communities in Boston and Lowell, Mass. At another extreme of expressivity is "Pacific," a large oil painting in which artist Kim-Ly Harbin, who lives near Washington, portrays a man and a woman just barely staying afloat in a churning sea. There is no land or boat in sight. There are the paradoxically pretty embroideries of the Hmong women, with their detailed depictions of violence and flight.

If there is one underlying emotion to this show, it is the sense of vulnerability the artists convey, the pain of powerlessness in the face of history gone horribly wrong. In a piece titled "Homesick," Chi Le, 35, attached actual bits of her hair to a bamboo blind that is punched full of holes and painted blood-red and jungle-green. Other objects also are connected to the blind; one is a baby doll. "You feel the war has torn you apart," she said in an interview from her home. "It pulled out my skin and my hair . . . every night bombs dropped. The baby is me when I was sleeping and the bombs dropped.

"I make 'Butcher Shop' because I remembered a butcher shop on a road in the country. They sold deer and other wild animals. I thought back to that, and I thought of the war. It was bloody . . . the meat of animals we eat looks exactly like the meat of people who blow up with bomb."

"Not very many Vietnamese people like that piece," she added. "They say, why can't you make something happy, something you can sell. . . . I can't. I am too busy with memories. I don't see beauty in what is beautiful. If I start to make something beautiful, I want to make it beautiful. But it starts beautiful and it becomes horrible. It always becomes horrible. I live with the war, and I cannot forget it."

Turner said that, with such uncompromising expressiveness, the younger Asian artists are breaking tradition.

"Many of these people come from cultures where it is considered inappropriate to express your emotions vividly, except in a ceremonial situation," he said. "Then, it's appropriate to cry and tear your hair out. But not in art."

The show's more blatantly emotional works reflect the artists' exposure to Western influences, Turner said. Indeed, Chi Le has an art degree from Cal State Long Beach, Hanh Thi Pham has degrees from Cal State Fullerton and Kim-Ly Harbin, 41, studied art at the University of Ottawa.

Among the show's most affecting works are the brightly colored tapestries by Hmong women, who lived in northern Laos before a Communist takeover in the mid-1970s forced them to leave for refugee camps in Thailand. The works were brought or mailed to the United States, where many have been collected by two Los Angeles women, Daphne Dennis and Carol Goldstein, who loaned four pieces to the show.

The "story cloths," as they are called, show the normal, daily activities of farming and play--tossing a ball around, for example--depicted next to scenes recording the violence that disrupted normal life. Written bits of narrative appear on the cloths in half-learned English, which many of the Hmong studied in the camps:

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