Gửi anh Tuyền (63 Years)

Mixed Media: video, photographs, installation, archival materials.

Mai Nguyen Anh’s intimate family history project spans the complex history of modern Vietnam, beginning before the second Indochina War of 1955–75 to the present day. The protagonists are Mai’s grandmother, Mrs. Huong Thi Kim Phung, 77, and her older brother Mr. Tuyen Pham, 81, who were parted at a young age in the early 1950s and lost contact for years after, due to geopolitical circumstances that spanned countries and continents. Living in Hanoi, Mrs. Huong received news of Tuyen’s survival when he wrote to her from the United States in 1976, where he and his family had escaped to following the Fall of Saigon the year before. In the decades following, they communicated through letters and telephone conversations. She learned about his early life in the south, where he had risen to become a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government, and his struggles in America as he and his family adapted to a new way of life as refugees and subsequently citizens. Fearing retaliation from the Communist party and preoccupied with the difficulties of getting by in the US, Tuyen was only able to make a brief visit to Hanoi in 2015. It was then that the two of them were able to reunite after 63 years of separation for the first, but also possibly the last time. 

While in Hanoi, Tuyen was introduced to other relatives, including Mai, who had, since childhood, heard tales about his grandmother’s long-lost brother. He subsequently visited Tuyen’s home in California, and started to develop this project even as his interest in and understanding of the historiography of war and conflict in Vietnam grew. In addition to his photographs, Mai interviewed his relatives about their memories and impressions of Tuyen, and assembled material from family archives. He staged and photographed scenarios based on some of these collected stories, and documented important snapshots and letters. He also commissioned imagined representations of Tuyen by artists who specialise in ancestral altar portraits, but rather than giving them a likeness of Tuyen, described instead some traits or aspects of his background that resulted in drawings of idiosyncratic visual archetypes. 

The result of all these documentary images, invented depictions, and fragments of collective memory is a composite portrait of a person well-known in their family lore but truly known by no one. 

The project was completed thanks to the support of Objectifs Documentary Award. The exhibition of the work was curated by Sam I-Shan from National Gallery Singapore and produced by Chelsea Chua from Objectifs.