Exhibition Review
By Mary Mie-Anne Montenegro, Art Historian & Researcher

It is surreal to think that there could have been a reality where Brandon and I were oceans apart and never would have met. Instead, our upbringings–different as they may be–led us both to meet in a country where we couldn’t be any further from each other’s roots. There is I, a daughter of Filipino migrant workers, who moved to America to pursue a career in Art History. There’s Brandon, a second-generation son of Vietnamese refugees exploring and navigating his cultural ethnic background and family history through his art. Our paths crossed here in America, where ironically, we both dedicated most of our early adult life studying pieces of our own country’s history. I was doing a talk about my research on Filipina New Woman through the 20th Century portraits of Carnival Queens of the Philippines. Almost immediately, Brandon and I found our common ground, for soon after the talk, I was then introduced to his developing body of work, which would be called Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here.

Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here reflects on the history that Brandon’s namesake carries. Here, he explores his family’s past–all the pain and glory brought about since seeking refuge during the Vietnam War. This work opens with his grandparents’ tattered wedding photograph taken in 1962, around the same time the Viet Cong insurgency expanded in South Vietnam and only about thirteen years before his family escaped the country. It is perhaps one of the very few tangible objects that connect Brandon to his motherland. Walking through this exhibition, one begins to understand that this work is meant to be more than just admired or looked at. The tension that is reverberated through the images—the mass hysteria captured by excerpts of war-torn Vietnam from LIFE Magazine, an archival photograph of a refugee boat set to flames, juxtaposed with many seemingly normal family photographs, particularly that of young Brandon and his grandfather—demands to be met with an emotional sensibility to be fully realized. In one of his earlier works (also photographed and included in this juxtaposition), Brandon inserts and reclaims his place in the projected war images collected from several LIFE magazines through his own body. This disruption presents a contemporary account of these images that impel the viewers to confront the effects of war both in the past and in the present time.

The six-foot wooden boat made from materials excavated from sites in Houston and the Gulf Coast where Brandon traced his family’s footprints encapsulates the work’s thesis statement. The boat serves as a faithful reimaging of the story of his family’s escape from Vietnam. In one of his mother’s accounts, she recalls a time when they had to give up their belongings to make way for more refugees on board. The boat, while a site of terror and trauma, brought forth a form of unexpected intimacy as the warmth produced from several people sharing this tiny space–in some ways–provided a sense of comfort and hope. The same intimacy was embodied in the performance in which Brandon carries the boat towards his mother and grandmother. In this act, one witnesses a rite in which he willfully accepts his past and confronts his present. It was a rite that demonstrated gratitude to the ones that came before him, the ones who left home so he would not have to live without it. At the end of the act, he receives a conical hat from his grandmother full of crops native to Vietnam and then plants them on fertile soil in the boat. What was once a vessel of uncertainty—a site of fear and loss—now allegorically becomes an object that carries with it all that his family has built, nurtured, and strengthened from the ground up.

Not to be understated is how much courage it takes to navigate such a complex familial and cultural history—one that is filled with anguish, pain, and trauma. Brandon does not dance around the surface; he allows himself to empathize and experience this past, which allows him to tell his own story no holds barred. His ability to practice fluidity in his work would only bring about a more expansive body of work in the future. To know home and be right where it is is a privilege but to be in the in-between is a gift, though it may not present itself as one. Brandon gains a fuller understanding of what his life and his namesake truly stand for. He uses this to tell a story that should resonate with those in his community — many of whom may struggle in their own journey of finding their identity and their sense of home and belongingness. The hope is that Brandon serves as a touching example of painstakingly finding one's roots and that he continues to serve as a voice for his people—hopefully only one of many soon to emerge. Though our places of origin may be oceans apart, and the story he tells is rather unique, the idea of displacement and the complexities of diasporic histories presented in his work hit so close to home.