Queering the Archive, Tracing One’s History

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Installation view of Satrang at 25: Queer South Asian Diaspora(s) in Context at ONE Archives at USC Libraries, 2022 (photo by Alexis Bard Johnson)

LOS ANGELES — Tucked into a small gallery in USC Library’s ONE Archives — self-described as the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world — is the second half of a multipart exhibition: Archival Intimacies: Queering South/East Asian Diasporas, a two-venue project curated by Aziz Sohail and Alexis Bard Johnson. While Stranger Intimacies I recently closed at the USC Pacific Asian Museum, Stranger Intimacies II remains on view at ONE Archives. Upstairs, viewers can also find the exhibition: Satrang at 25: Queer South Asian Diaspora(s) in Context, which features archives relating to Satrang, the principal queer Southeast Asian community organization in Southern California. Both exhibitions at ONE are explorations in “queering” the archive, through propositions by contemporary artists and a display of queer archival material.

Installation view of Stranger Intimacy I at USC Pacific Asia Museum, 2022 (photo by Alexis Bard Johnson)

Stranger Intimacy II focuses on a series of wall and hanging works by Vinhay Keo, as well as a video installation by Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai. Both artists are themselves members of the queer Southeast Asian diaspora, and their work investigates the residue of their families’ fraught history of immigration from Cambodia and Thailand, respectively: Keo’s family hails from Cambodia, emigrating to the United States as a result of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s, and Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai’s great-granduncle fled Thailand in 1949, forced into exile, first in China, then France, after attempts at forming a democracy in monarchic Thailand.

Installation view of Stranger Intimacy II at ONE Archives at USC Libraries (photo by Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai, image courtesy the artist)

Unfortunately, information regarding these migratory histories — a critical framework for understanding both artists’ work, which examines their families’ narratives of displacement instigated by the necessity of escape from violent regimes and inflected by the trauma of Western colonization — is not immediately accessible to viewers upon entering the exhibition. While a press release is available online, the gallery itself is adorned only with a short, elliptical wall text that doesn’t provide the kind of specific historical references necessary as an entry point into the rich, layered nature of the artists’ projects. Perhaps this obfuscation is intentional, a queering by way of illegibility, but the viewer is given no pointers to help guide them through the particular Southeast Asian political, material, and familial histories referenced in the artists’ work, and is left instead to grapple in the dark for context.

Installation view of Stranger Intimacy II at ONE Archives at USC Libraries (photo by Vinhay Keo, image courtesy the artist)

For example, Vinhay Keo’s three embroidery works feature long, rectangular sampot fabric, a Cambodian garment and symbol of Khmer identity. The artist’s inclusion of the diverse materials of the sampot, ranging from silk to cotton to cork, traces its material and colonial history as a once unisex garment that became feminized under French colonial rule. “9” x 9” x 4”” (2021) is a cotton sampot in the form of a donut box, a replica of and reference to the pink donut boxes of Southern California, whose donut retail industry is largely dominated by members of the Cambodian diaspora — many of whom arrived here in the ‘70s to escape the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime. As Keo shared with me in an email exchange, “the donut industry became a model for economic upward mobility for Cambodian refugees and the latter generations. It’s also fraught with the fallacy of the American Dream narrative, the immigrant narrative of rags-to-riches.”

Vinhay Keo, “9” x 9″ x 4″” (2021), sampot, cotton, 9 x 9 x 4 inches (photo by Vinhay Keo, image courtesy the artist)

Similarly unraveling a string of references is Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai’s poetic cartography of their great-grand uncle’s multiple exiles from his home country of Thailand. Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai’s video installation, “Ocean Network Express”(2021), centers on the video “Appendix A: Ocean Gazing” (2021), which narrates their great-granduncle’s migratory patterns by boat while in exile. These movements are placed in dialogue with the Southern California littoral, particularly the San Pedro Harbor, with its cargo ships sailing in and out — the remnants of military paraphernalia of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War littering the coastline, imposing defunct canons and concrete structures that a voiceover reminds us were designed to be a barrage contre le Pacifique, in reference to the Marguerite Duras novel of the same name. The stoic voice, the artist’s own, continues in a matter-of-fact monotone: “the Pacific Ocean is the ultimate barrier between the East and the West. These defenses are no longer needed: the enemy has been defeated. The Yellow Peril has been neutralized. We are safe now.”

Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai, video still of “Appendix A: Ocean Gazing” (2021), video, TRT: 15:46 minutes (image courtesy the artist)

Yet in a time marked by the fanning of Asian hate fueled by dangerous rhetoric that continues to brand and persecute Asians as carriers of disease, it would seem that this barrage is still at work. History, we are told, repeats itself. The artists showcased in Archival Intimacies remind us that the violence of our colonial histories are still with us, haunting the ancestors of those who first made the perilous trip to this country, only to be faced with the fallacy of the American Dream and cast as crude stereotypes. To acknowledge these histories, to queer this archive by way of artistic representation, is to point to the lasting repercussions of colonial trauma on Asian-American bodies — and to begin to overcome it.

Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai, video still of “Appendix A: Ocean Gazing” (2021), video, TRT: 15:46 minutes (image courtesy the artist)

Stranger Intimacies II, part of Archival Intimacies: Queering South/East Asian Diasporas continues at ONE Archives at USC (909 West Adams Boulevard, University Park, Los Angeles) through May 27. The exhibition was curated by Aziz Sohail and Alexis Bard Johnson.

Vanessa Holyoak is an interdisciplinary writer and artist based in Los Angeles. Her art writing focuses on installation, sculpture, image-based, and performance practices, forms she takes up in her own…

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