Asian Journey









Ha Long Bay, 1985, color photograph,
24 x 36 inches, by Geoffrey Clifford

Two exhibitions this fall at the Community Folk Art Center illuminated how different perspectives can converge to forge a stronger understanding of cultural diversity. Separated by mere footsteps in the center’s new gallery space on Genesee Street, the exhibitions—Vietnam: Journey of the Heart, Photographs by Geoffrey Clifford, 1985-2000 and Perspectives: Contemporary Asian Art, Culture and Identity—provided a glimpse into how two worlds, once divided by suspicion and a lack of mutual knowledge, have come together. While Clifford’s photographs represent a Vietnam War veteran’s reconciliation with the past, the eclectic works featured in Perspectives offer insights into how some artists express their heritages while handling struggles posed by their adopted cultures. “We wanted the exhibitions to complement one another,” says curator Gina Stankivitz ’91, G’96. “Geoffrey Clifford’s photographs are gorgeous and his story is fascinating. Journey of the Heart fit well with the Asian exhibition, which I’ve wanted to do for a few years because there is a talented community of artists from Southeast Asia in Syracuse. I thought it was important to showcase their works.”

Clifford was an Army helicopter pilot who peered down with awe at Vietnam’s enchanting landscapes, but was frustrated that he was never able to talk with the Vietnamese people. In 1985, he was a member of the first organized tour of veterans to return to post-war Vietnam. Since then, he has visited the country more than 20 times, documenting its natural beauty, diverse peoples and customs, and newfound cultural and economic vitality. The 52 photographs capture daily life—work, celebration, religious rituals—as well as rural and urban landscapes, the people’s ties to land and sea, and traditional and contemporary ways. Consider, for instance, the contrast between the booming skyline of Ho Chi Minh City and the serene setting of a father and son returning from sea in a fishing boat. “Assembling this body of work has allowed me to meet the people of Vietnam,” Clifford writes about the ongoing project, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. “It has enriched my own understanding and has opened my heart.”

The range of Clifford’s images is matched with the depth of art in Perspectives. There are paintings, collages, and video installations, as well as furniture and traditional Hmong costumes and jewelry. Two of the local artists, Phong Vu and Vinh Dang, served in the South Vietnamese army and were imprisoned by the Vietcong. Today, their art reflects their heritage: Vu’s elegantly crafted table features Vietnamese-influenced details, while Dang’s acrylic paintings depict traditional customs and mythology. Artist Anh Nguyen also works in acrylics, merging themes from his past and present worlds. One of his paintings represents life’s journey and is draped in cheesecloth, which is used in making traditional Vietnamese funeral garments, especially by poor families. Video artist Hye Yeon Nam portrays herself as an outsider stereotyped by American society. In one film, she walks down a bustling city street in oversized sandals. Likewise, in her work, Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin, a Korean-born adoptee who describes herself as “sort of an accidental Asian,” explores issues of personal and cultural identity, blending family snapshots with Asian objects and designs. “These artists have important stories to tell,” Stankivitz says. “Their works are significant, and their voices should be heard.”     

—Jay Cox



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