By DOUG MACCASH, The Times Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – At first glance, the 108 bottles of yellow nail polish in the ceramic sculpture exhibition by artist Christian Anh Dai Viet Dinh at the Ogden Southern Art Museum may look the same. But on closer inspection, you notice subtle differences in shape, from squat to slim. And you notice color variations, from antique ivory to mango. If, as you go through the bottles, you begin to consider the relation of individuality to generality, then you are drawn to a subject dear to Dinh’s heart.
Dinh, 28, is a first generation American. Her mother was 7 and her father was 14 in 1975, when they escaped the chaos at the end of the Vietnam War and finally settled with their families in Florida. Dinh said he doesn’t speak Vietnamese very well, but he understands it very well. For example, he understood when his grandmother taught him how to properly steam a whole fish. Grandma wasn’t big on the exact timing of the recipe. Instead, she told him to wait until the eyes turn white, and then the fish is perfectly done.
Now Dinh enjoys being part of a chain of culture that can pass indigenous recipes down from generation to generation, from the distant past to the distant future. But, he admits, there was a time when he didn’t want to be identified with the perceived stereotypes of Vietnamese-American culture – nail salons, love of karaoke, the Catholic Church and all that.
In addition, he did not want to be assimilated into all other Asian cultures, as it often happened. He was an individualist, which he said is a very American trait. Or maybe it’s a characteristic of people like Dinh, who have one foot in American culture and one foot in another culture as well. Maybe, since some Americans think that all yellow nail polish bottles are the same, some of the bottles try to stand out more than they otherwise would.
Dinh is one of those guys who goes overboard. 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 volunteered to develop photos for other students. And when he learned to create classical Chinese porcelain, he perfected the rigorous techniques until his vases and cast shapes looked like they had been made by a centuries-old master. Dinh’s know-how is, well, exceptional.
A few years ago, Dinh had a revelation. He suddenly realized that those Vietnamese stereotypes he had avoided were in fact symbols of cultural triumph.
For example, in the 1970s Vietnamese entrepreneurs entered the nail salon business, he said. There are now Vietnamese-run salons from coast to coast. And these aren’t just examples of successful small start-ups; these are examples of members of the immigrant community making sure that there are always jobs for other members of the immigrant community. Vietnamese nail salons, he said, are like Chinese restaurants in a way. They represent assimilation because they provide a cultural link.
It would have been easy, he said, for Vietnamese Christian immigrants to have relaxed their Catholic devotion by settling in a new country, but they did not. Instead, he said, they restored churches that anchored communities as they adjusted to their new world. The church was a place of worship and a place for the survival of ethnic identity, he said.
The way Dinh has woven these concepts into his ceramics on the fourth floor of the Ogden Museum is wonderfully subtle. The identical ceramic hand sets you’ll see are reproductions of mannequin hands used to display nail polishing techniques in Vietnamese nail salon windows. But instead of low-cost plastic advertising props, Dinh’s hands are lovingly handmade treasures, decorated with symbols of the refugee experience. As Dinh said, the messages on the hands reveal both âlanguage barriers and communication toolsâ, such as the lyrics to the hymn âAve Mariaâ, as well as a Vietnamese toast, letters from karaoke style, US dollars and Vietnamese currency.
One of the exquisite Chinese-style blue and white jars is decorated with images of take-out boxes from Chinese restaurants. Another is illustrated by the kind of squid used to make Vietnamese fish sauce. And another includes a family recipe for, you guessed it, steamed fish. The vases could look quite traditional if they weren’t shaped like giant nail polish bottles.
In each case, Dinh took objects or ideas that might seem ordinary and made them precious, just as his culture became precious to him. Which brings us back to the 108 bottles of porcelain nail polish meticulously crafted and enamelled with a spectrum of yellow.
âIf they all look the same (although they aren’t) then we might all look the same, but we are all individuals,â Dinh said. “If all Asians are yellow, then yellow is beautiful.”
Dinh is a graduate student at Tulane University. His âNail Salonâ exhibit runs through Jan. 16 at The Ogden, 925 Camp St. Timed tickets required: adults, $ 13.50; seniors / teachers / military, $ 11; children 5 to 17 years old, $ 6.75.