Exhibition: MyLoan Dinh | Unsettled Provisions

Exhibition Dates: November 3rd – January 14th  |  Opening Reception: November 3rd, 6-9pm | OCA Gallery


MyLoan Dinh mines her history as a war refugee to inform her practice and approach to artmaking.  “My work constructs hybrid spaces,” asserts Dinh, “within which the ever-changing, always unfinished meaning of identity can be explored, subverted and reimagined.” Utilizing diverse media—painting, sculpture, mixed media, performance and installation—Dinh binds personal narratives to the collective experience.  Language barriers, financial setbacks, cultural code shifting, and multiple prejudices—even assigned invisibility—are among the challenges experienced by those who fled their countries at great peril with the hope of rebuilding profoundly different lives.

One of Dinh’s earliest memories is a jubilant reunion of her mother and aunt at the canteen in Camp Pendleton, a Vietnamese refugee camp in California, where her family lived in tent number eight. The sisters had not known the fate of one another since leaving Vietnam, so to find one another alive and safe ignited joy and hope. This happy reunion, one of great emotional intensity, became forever seared in Dinh’s memory.

Months earlier, the family fled Vietnam and set out with other war refugees on the last South Vietnamese navy ship crossing a dangerous sea to find safety. As Saigon was falling, her father, a naval officer, shred all documentation of his identity. Her mother packed one bag of meager provisions to sustain the family of four, wisely including a stash of gold bangles hidden on her arm for bartering currency.

The family’s arrival at Camp Pendleton marked a liminal space between where they had been and where they were going. The lack of personal agency was a stark reality within the camp.  All war refugees awaited sponsorship to be invited into a more permanent community.  A Lutheran Church in Boone, North Carolina, came forward as the family’s sponsor and provided a safer, more stable home as they moved forward with their lives and forged new, hybrid identities.

The family walked a fine line of adaptation to the norms in their new home, while also maintaining important cultural and religious practices. Attending the Lutheran Church as well as the Buddhist Temple, they added to their identity. The strength and resilience of the family impacted Dinh, encouraging her to have a strong voice and means of expression through art and performance.

The metaphorical capacity of material culture is explored as Dinh utilizes repurposed objects and artifacts. The “immigrant bag”– a large, handled bag made from ubiquitous plaid fabric, correlates to the bag that Dinh’s mother used to contain the family’s provisions. In the series, Baggage Claim, Dinh uses this material to mask people and significant objects within photographs, highlighting the invisibility of individuals and the erasure of societal connections. Alternating between illumination and dimness, the masked components of the photographs challenge the idea of diminishment and invisibility. When illuminated, the presence of the light obliterates the implied absence of the masking.

Familiar tools for building, such as mallets, axes and hammers, are reappointed in the sculptural installation, (re)econstructing the space in-between. These implements are covered in a skin of crushed eggshells painstakingly applied to the surface, a technique referencing a lacquering tradition that is used to protect Vietnamese water puppets—a performance tradition developed in the 11th century celebrating the flooding of rice paddies. The flooded river served as the performance space and the carved puppets were activated by bamboo poles. Dinh’s choice of eggshells is significant. As a humble material, the eggshell provides a container for new, incubated life. Envelopes covered with eggshells in Presorted Second Class contain family histories, and a passport, Identity, becomes a venerated object. Boxing gloves adorned with a butterfly insignia, Boom Boom, is a hopeful statement about metamorphosis and the fluidity of migration over borders and boundaries. “Boom Boom” translates as butterfly in Vietnamese and the gloves resemble curled cocoons from which the insect emerges and the implied beauty belies the power of the gloves as boxer’s weapons inflicting sharp blows to the head.

The diptych, Being, offers a more peaceful meditation. Depicting the hands of a Buddhist monk, these hands are implements of power and transformation. The accompanying panel repeats the image of the monk’s hands holding prayer beads, a vehicle to aid meditation and cultivate lasting, peaceful presence.

Cheap plastic beads are components of the installation, Treat Yourself, which, in part, critiques the transactions within nail salons. Issuing from the water faucets on the wall, the beads mock the cleansing power of water.  The salon worker depicted as a black and white decal attached to the wall, with a shadow spilling onto the floor, implies the transactional nature of the industry where the worker is ignored and overlooked. Juxtaposed with the decal image is a draped towel that shows the image of Jesus’ hands washing the feet of a disciple. This act of service occurs at the Last Supper where Jesus offers a concise message of his ministry: “A new commandment I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34 NIV)

The wry repetition of the homophone phúc is also a message to wake up, be aware and care. The translated meaning of phúc is happiness, which is printed 108 times in the wall installation, Give a Phúc.  Corresponding to the number of beads on a Buddhist mala, each bead is grasped to keep count of a repeated mantra. This wall installation serves as a visual invocation for happiness and well-being.

The shredding and reconstitution of identity is referenced in The Uncertainty of Nostalgic Things. US Bicentennial commemorative plates are repurposed, creating a proxy for a pie that has been sliced. The corresponding pieces of pie are constructed from layers of shredded letters and documents belonging to Dinh’s parents that she has mixed with fragrant spices originally imported from Asia. Significantly, the Bicentennial year 1976 also marks the year when the last American troops returned from Vietnam, ending the long, controversial war.

As we emerge from the sequestering days of the pandemic, Dinh’s Zoom Buddha reinterprets Nam June Paik’s iconic TV Buddha, 1974, which trained a live camera on a statue of Buddha that was transmitted onto a TV screen.  Dinh’s sculpture references a time when we became accustomed to seeing one another primarily on screens, rather than in person, often missing important non-verbal aspects of communication. The sculpture of the Buddha figure seems to be gazing at his image on the screen, completing a continual circuit of objective and subjective reality.

The floor piece, Transit, features a monitor that mimics the path traveled by an ambiguous figure. Cracks in the pavement are followed and streams of water are traversed to an unknown destination. Following the tracks, the figure pursues a dangerous route often on the outskirts of town, away from visibility and safety.

The uneasy path trod by many Asian immigrants is probed in the performance installation, Longing for Harmonies. Snippets of the live performance by Dinh are recorded and projected onto torn paper parasols from the previous presentations. In the middle of the room sits a narrow table displaying personal objects she ritually uses for both prayer and studio practice.  The installation probes questions of motherhood, cultural traditions, history, as well as the personal and collective unconscious.

The provisions that Dinh’s mother carried with her on the ship leaving Saigon sustained the family on their uncertain journey.  Nourishment was also provided by the cultural traditions, rituals, and hopes for future generations to forge new, hybrid identities.  Like her mother, Dinh has repurposed provisions of her own making to construct her own space and to amplify her significant voice. These provisions challenge and dismantle falsely assigned identities and offer means to generate new ways of moving and being.


— Carla M. Hanzal, Curator and Arts Planner, Charlotte, NC