Vietnamese-American Artist’s ‘Nail Salon’ Exhibit At The Ogden Celebrates A Success Story

Doug Maccash The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In artist Christian Dinh's new exhibition,  ceramic hands are uniquely decorated with symbols of the Vietnamese refugee experience. 

New Orleans

At first glance, the 108 bottles of yellow fingernail polish in artist Christian Anh Dai Viet Dinh's exhibit of ceramic sculpture at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art might seem identical. But as you look more carefully, you pick up on subtle differences in shape, from squat to slender. And you notice color variations, from antique ivory to mango. If, as you survey the bottles, you begin considering the relationship of individuality to generality, then you're being drawn into a subject dear to Dinh's heart.

Dinh, 28, is a first-generation American. His mom was 7 and his dad was 14 in 1975, when they escaped the chaos at the close of the war in Vietnam and eventually settled with their families in Florida. Dinh said he can't speak Vietnamese very well, but he understands it all right. For instance, he understood when his grandmother instructed him how to properly steam a whole fish. Grandma wasn't big on the exact timing of the recipe. Instead, she told him to just wait until the eyes turn white, then the fish is perfectly done.

Now, Dinh appreciates being a part of a chain of culture that can pass down native recipes from generation to generation, from the distant past far into the future. But, he confesses, there was a time when he didn't want to be identified with the perceived stereotypes of Vietnamese-American culture — the nail salons, the love of karaoke, the Catholic Church and all that stuff.

Furthermore, he didn't want to be lumped in with all the other Asian cultures, as often happened. He was an individualist, which, he said, is a very American trait. Or maybe it's a trait of people like Dinh, who have one foot in American culture and one foot in another culture too. Maybe, since some Americans think all the yellow nail-polish bottles look the same, some of the bottles strive to stand out more than they otherwise would.

Dinh is one of those dudes who overdoes everything. When he studied classical guitar, he practiced until he risked damaging the muscles in his hands. When he studied photography, he became so obsessed with old-fashioned darkroom work that he'd volunteer to develop photos for other students. And when he learned to create classic Chinese porcelain, he honed the exacting techniques until his vases and cast shapes look like they might have been done by an age-old master. Dinh's craftsmanship is, well, outstanding.

A few years back, Dinh had an epiphany. It suddenly dawned on him that those Vietnamese stereotypes that he had shunned were actually symbols of cultural triumph.

For instance, back in the 1970s, Vietnamese entrepreneurs went into the nail salon business, he said. Now there are Vietnamese-run salons from coast to coast. And they're not just examples of successful small startup companies; they're examples of immigrant community members making sure there are always jobs for other immigrant community members. Vietnamese nail salons, he said, are like Chinese restaurants, in a way. They represent assimilation as they ensure a cultural bond.

It would have been easy, he said, for the immigrant Christian Vietnamese to have relaxed their Catholic devotion as they settled in a new country, but they didn't. Instead, he said, they re-established churches that anchored communities as they adjusted to their new world. The church was a place of worship and a place for ethnic identity to survive, he said.

The way that Dinh has woven those concepts into his ceramics on the Ogden Museum's fourth floor is marvelously subtle. The sets of identical ceramic hands you'll see are reproductions of the manikin hands used to display nail-painting techniques in the windows of Vietnamese nail salons. But instead of cheaply manufactured plastic advertising props, Dinh's hands are lovingly hand-made treasures, decorated with symbols of the refugee experience. As Dinh put it, the messages on the hands reveal both "language barriers and tools of communication," such as the words of the hymn "Ave Maria," along with a celebratory Vietnamese drinking toast, karaoke machine-style lettering, American dollars and Vietnamese currency.

One of the exquisite Chinese-style blue and white pots is decorated with images from takeout cartons from Chinese restaurants. Another is illustrated with the sort of squid used to make Vietnamese fish sauce. And another includes a family recipe for, you guessed it, steamed fish. The vases might seem entirely traditional, if they weren't shaped like giant fingernail polish bottles.

In each case, Dinh has taken objects or ideas that could seem ordinary and made them precious, just like his culture has become precious to him. Which brings us back to the 108 meticulously made porcelain nail-polish bottles glazed in a spectrum of yellow.

"If they all look the same (though they are not), then we might all look the same, but we're all individuals," Dinh said. "If all Asian people are yellow, then yellow is beautiful."

Dinh is a graduate student at Tulane University. His "Nail Salon" exhibit continues through Jan 16 at The Ogden, 925 Camp St. Timed tickets required: adults, $13.50; seniors/teachers/military, $11; children 5 to 17, $6.75. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *