Art in the Diaspora

Just like war, which is often the cause of forced displacement, refugee histories have “murky beginnings and inconclusive endings,” to quote Viet Thanh Nguyen. Just as the moment of displacement does not mark the beginning of refugee history, so too does resettlement fail to mark its end. This exhibit showcases art made by refugees in their attempts to process, to preserve and to honor their own, as well as their collective, experiences. This act of recalling and working through the trauma of forced displacement - of leaving what you know to dive into the unknown because the dangers of staying outweigh the dangers of leaving- is painful and yet for some, necessary. The following pieces reflect the artists' experiences as refugees, but more than that, they reflect a community’s attempt to heal, to remember, and to survive – despite the odds.

Artwork by Hà Cẩm Đường

Hà Cẩm Đường was born in Cao Lãnh, a city in southern Vietnam, in 1940. Prior to being drafted into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), he graduated from the Fine Arts College of Gia Định. He served as a lieutenant until the end of the conflict. In 1981, Hà Cẩm Đường fled Vietnam by boat with two sons and a nephew. After arriving in the Philippines after a ten-day journey, the group remained in refugee camps there for approximately a year and a half. He arrived in Oakland, California in March 1983. He produced the majority of his artwork while studying at a college in San Jose. Reflecting upon years of struggle, Hà Cẩm Đường chose to enroll in the Golden Gate Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1985. After years of commitment, in 1993, he was ordained into the ministry at the Vietnamese Baptist Church in San Jose.

The artwork of Hà Cẩm Đường reflects his experiences as a veteran and refugee within the Vietnamese diaspora. Pieces gifted to the Việt Museum are featured below.

To read a transcription of an interview with Hà Cẩm Đường about his artwork displayed at the Việt Museum, click here

Freedom 1985

62 cm x 93 cm

Acrylic on canvas

This painting is inspired by the artist's own painful experience as a refugee. At the center of this painting is a man with a strained face, surrounded by three young boys who represent the artist's two sons and his nephew. The boys each hold a flag with the word “Freedom” on it. One of the boy's flags is backward to suggest that the journey to freedom, instead of being a joyful experience, is filled with struggle and hardship.

On the back of the painting are the two lines of the poem by Thanh Nam:

"Muốn rơi nước mắt khi tàn mộng

Nghỉ đắt vô cùng giá tự do

(Tears drop when dreams shatter

How costly the price of freedom)."

Candle of Burning Tears 1985

31 cm x 29 cm x 76 cm


The date April 30, 1975 is inscribed onto the blackened edge of a war-torn Vietnam that serves as the base for the bronze sculpture known as the “Candle of Burning Tears.” From a maelstrom of twisting flames above, streams of tears modeled on hot wax drip down. Those tears of hot wax descend into the northern, central, and southern regions of Vietnam. The statue represents the destruction of the country and the suffering of those forced from their homeland.

To see this in 3D, click here

Shameful Defeat 1983

28 cm x 49 cm x 30 cm

Stone and bronze

This sculpture portrays a South Vietnamese soldier clutching his head in shame and despair after the surrender of South Vietnam to communist forces. The head was carved out of a granite block. The hand, made of bronze, was modeled on the artist’s own hand.

To see this in 3D, click here

Praying for Peace 1983

71 cm x 92 cm

Acrylic on canvas

This painting is inspired by the artist's recollection of a young girl with her unkempt hair and her homemade shirt, praying at a temple in Vietnam. She is reimagined here praying from behind barbed wires. The girl's hands are held up in prayer while she gazes resolutely beyond her confinement.

Full Painting

Never Forget 1985

76 cm x 182 cm

Mixed media

The painting is divided into three sections representing the Hà Cẩm Đường’s journey as a refugee.

The top section depicts the artist’s experience fleeing Vietnam. An outline of the country is seemingly engulfed by flames with red clouds of smoke rising forth. Within those clouds, Hà Cẩm Đường laments the loss that has occurred with the phrases: “That’s my motherland! Quê Hương tôi đó!/ How can I forget? Làm sao quên đươc Quê tôi?”

The transition into the next stage of Hà Cẩm Đường’s journey is marked by the words “Rời Quê Hương chiều ngày 5.8.1981 nhầm mùng 6 tháng 7 âm lịch”m (Left my motherland on August 5th, 1981, or July 6th according to the lunar calendar) that hug the curvature of the burning country. Amidst an ocean of swirling black, the middle area representing the experience of those in refugee camps emerges. An outline of Ulugan Bay on the coast of Palawan in the Philippines, which is where the artists arrived after ten days of being at sea, occupies the center of the painting.

The words wrapping around Ulugan Bay detail the Hà Cẩm Đường’s relocation to different refugee camps in the nineteenth months following his arrival on August 15, 1981.

The shape of Ulugan Bay forms the profile of the wife that Hà Cẩm Đường was forced to leave behind due to the risks of the voyage. After a decade, in 1993, the Hà Cẩm Đường finally reunited with his wife.

The last section of the painting features the shape of California overlaying the American flag. Written across the state are these words: “Arrived at the Oakland California Airport U.S.A. on March 15, 1983.” Amidst the words are the handprint and footprint of Hà Cẩm Đường. On the edge of the painting, forming part of northern California, is the remainder of the Coke can that Hà Cẩm Đường drank on the day he arrived.

The translation of the middle section is featured here:

“Chiều ngay 15.8.1981, thấy mờ mờ đảo Ulugan Bay (On the afternoon of August 15th, 1981, we dimly saw Ulugan Bay)/ Tất cả chúng tôi rất mừng thoát chết trên biển sau 10 ngày tuyệt vọng. Cám ơn chúa! (We were all so happy to have escaped death at sea after 10 hopeless days. Thank you, God.)/ Chiều hôm ấy nhầm ngày 16 tháng 7 âm lịch. Chúng tôi hưởng ánh trăng đầu tiên ở xứ người! (That afternoon fell on July 16th of the lunar calendar. We got to enjoy the moonlight for the first time on foreign land)/ Đây! Philippines!!! Group 129 Ulugan Bay./ Here! Philippines!!!/ Chiều ngày 17.8.1981 vào trại Palawan sống ở đây đúng 1 năm 2 tháng… (On the afternoon of August 17th, 1981, admitted to Palawan camp and lived there for exactly 1 year and 2 months…)/ Rời trại Palawan ngày 17.10.1982/ Đến đảo Bataan ngày 19.10.1982. (Arrived at Bataan on October 10th, 1982)/ Rời Bataan 15.3.1983. (Left Bataan on March 15th, 1983).”

Close up of the Top of Painting

Close up of the Middle of Painting

Close up of the Middle of Painting

Close up of the Bottom of Painting

Work by Other Artists

Boat Tân Phát Unknown

Lan Nguyen

2.74m x 4.88 m (12 panels total)

Acrylic on canvas

This monumental piece portrays the Tân Phát fishing boat which left Cà Mau, a city in southern Vietnam, with twenty-one refugees aboard in 1980. The refugees on the Tân Phát were eventually rescued by a Japanese boat. Crowded into different parts of the boat, which is being buffeted by harsh winds further along into a darkening reddish sky, are six refugees. The painting, through the experience of the refugees aboard the Tân Phát, depicts the desperation of refugees who undertook the incredibly dangerous journey to flee Vietnam by sea.

To see the reconstruction of the Tân Phát fishing boat at the Viet Museum, click here

Viet Nam Mother Unknown

Lan Nguyen

76 cm x 102 cm

Acrylic on canvas

This painting depicts the resilience of Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War as well as in its aftermath. Dressed in the traditional garments of the Southern countryside (áo bà ba and khăn rằn) with a conical hat (nón lá) on her head and no shoes on her feet, a woman is painted walking away with her children. She carries two children, along with basic necessities such as pots and pans and blankets, in baskets hanging from a shoulder pole. An older child walks ahead carrying whatever he can, including a large cauldron. All of the figures are turned away as they walk towards a cloudy horizon; only the small child in the right basket is facing the viewer.

Remain of the War Unknown

Lan Nguyen

76 cm x 102 cm

Acrylic on canvas

This painting depicts an imagined civilian scene from the 1965 Battle of Đồng Xoài. The painting portrays three generations of a family huddling together as they look about in shock and horror at the violence around them. The background evokes fire with hues of orange and red.

Rescue 1990

Thu Tran

102 cm x 76 cm

Acrylic on canvas

This painting shows a scene of Vietnamese refugees being rescued at sea. It is striking that half of the painting is still dedicated to the sea, emphasizing the dominating role it played in the refugees’ flight. The vertical depiction of just the side of the rescuing ship creates tension within the painting with the horizontal one of the vast ocean as its lapping waves fade into the horizon. Centered and yet covered by the rescuers is the small boat of the refugees.

L'lle de Lumière 2005

Trương Thị Thịnh

76 cm x 102 cm

Oil on canvas

Dominating this piece is a large commercial ship with the names Cap Anamur and Ile de Lumière painted on it – a nod to the two humanitarian initiatives that emerged in 1978 in response to the Vietnamese refugee “crisis.” Surrounding the ship are numerous boats that are much smaller in size. These boats resemble the Hai Hong, the infamous boat that had been stranded on the coast of Malaysia with over 2,500 refugees aboard. Photos of the Hai Hong circulated throughout the world and triggered a defining moment in public and political opinion about the treatment of refugees. Artist Trương Th Thịnh was trained at Vietnam’s Gia Dinh National College of Fine Arts, where she also became a professor.

To see more work by the artist, click here

The sculpture was gifted to the Việt Museum by Mr. Đinh Thành Châu, an attorney and former congressman of South Vietnam before 1975, and one of the refugees aboard the Trường Xuân.

For Phạm Ngọc Luy's memoir "The Freedom Voyage of the Trường Xuân," click here

For more on the voyage of the Trường Xuân, click here

Trường Xuân Ship 2008

Unknown Artist

59 cm x 36 cm


The sculpture depicts the final voyage of the Trường Xuân. The ship—representing the Trường Xuân—is shown being towed by a tug boat—the Song An—after running aground on a sandbank just 2 hours after departing Saigon.

On April 30, 1975, Phạm Ngọc Luy captain of the Trường Xuân tried to save 3,628 refugees from Saigon. However, the ship was soon out of food and water. By the time it reached Vũng Tàu, the engine room was flooded and stopped running. The captain started to send an SOS signal over the radio. After 2 days and 1 night of desperation, during which people fell subject to weariness and even suicide, the call was answered by Clara Maersk, a Danish ship. All of the refugees left aboard were rescued and admitted to a refugee camp in Hong Kong.