'To Name It Is To See It' remembers forgotten Vietnamese revolutionary

Hương Ngô
Chicago-based artist Hương Ngô brings her exhibition about Vietnamese revolutionary Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai to the DePaul Art Museum for a spring exhibition. (Courtesy of the artist)
A key figure in an anti-colonial movement against the Vietnamese government in the first half of the 20th century is the subject of the latest DePaul Art Museum exhibition, "To Name It Is To See It," set to open April 27 and run through Aug. 6 on the museum's second floor.

A leader of the Indochinese Communist Party in the 1930s, Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was killed by a French firing squad in 1941 after more than a decade of work as an anti-colonial figure and a master of disguise that featured both international espionage and national sabotage, says Chicago's Hương Ngô, the exhibition's artist.

"In today's political climate in the U.S., Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai's story is incredibly important to tell," Ngô says. "Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was a Vietnamese woman, organizing against the colonial French government when not only her activities were criminalized, but also when her actions and judgement were questioned within the patriarchal community of revolutionaries.

"Her story upends representations of Asian women as being apolitical and even passive. It also highlights the connection between the criminalization of people of color and the legitimization of oppressive surveillance policies, which, once in place, are then used on a general population. Finally, the project touches on what motivates an oppressed people to organize, raise consciousness and actively resist unjust authoritarian regimes," Ngô adds.

Ngô's work on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was inspired by her trips to Vietnam and France, according to Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the museum's director and chief curator. "To Name It Is To See It" touches on topics including colonialism, political activism, women's rights, surveillance, class, language and Vietnamese history.

From the beginning of the project Ngô wanted a title that drew connections between language and seeing, the artist says.

"'To Name It Is To See It' evokes the promise of a discursive practice, identifying an injustice by name is the first step to understanding it and working towards change," explains Ngô.

The exhibition features more than 25 individual pieces of art ranging from photos to video and fabrics.

"This project is not biographical or meant to construct a narrative of Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, but rather to reveal the difficulties and even the impossibilities of her many roles," Ngô says. "There is as much in the exhibit that engages in the institutional frameworks that shape such historical narratives, such as national archives and museums."

The exhibition includes a letter from Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai to the other men in the movement at a time when she is both the most powerful liaison and the least powerful among their milieu, Ngô explains.

"She was the highest ranking, but because she was a woman she wasn't allowed to vote," Ngô says. "The note reveals her frustration that the group does not trust her leadership and prefer their own disorganized ineffectiveness. One could easily draw parallels to the struggle that many women still feel today in achieving equality."

'A Matter of Conscience' and 'Stranger Things'
A pair of smaller exhibitions drawn primarily from the DePaul Art Museum collection, including selections from Chuck Thurow's 2016 gift, will also be on display during the spring-summer season.

"A Matter of Conscience" will run from April 27 to June 18 and presents works that reflect varying artistic approaches to politically charged content and pressing social issues. Mia Lopez, DePaul Art Museum assistant curator, is curating the exhibition. Featured artists are Siah Armajani, Margaret Burroughs, Alan Cohen, Paul D'Amato, Ester Hernandez, Michael Hernandez de Luna, Max King Cap, Rudzani Nemasetoni, Betye Saar, Aram Han Sifuentes, Andy Warhol and Garry Winogrand.

"Stranger Things" will follow from June 21 to Aug. 6 and includes artists who work against representational traditions in sculpture, drawing and painting to create forms that are at once familiar yet difficult to name. Widholm is curating the exhibition. Featured artists are Robert Bladen, Miriam Bloom, Alex Chitty, Chris Garofalo, Magalie Guerin, David Jackson, Paul LaMantia, Sterling Lawrence, Jim Lutes, Sandra Perlow, Richard Rezac and David Richards.

Admission is free at the DePaul Art Museum. Museum hours are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. For more on DePaul Art Museum's upcoming exhibitions and events, call 773-325-7506 or visit http://museums.depaul.edu/.