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Faces in the Pandemic

Queer Asian American artists address COVID-19 at a new Rice University exhibit.

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The work of queer artists Brandon Tho Harris (l), Antonius Tin-Bui, and Victor Ancheta will be featured at Rice University’s Faces in the Pandemic exhibit (courtesy photos).

LGBTQ Houstonians are doing their part to uplift the community as COVID-19 cases rise and the fight for equality intensifies. To inform and inspire audiences, local Asian American LGBTQ artists Victor Ancheta, Antonius Tin-Bui, and Brandon Tho Harris partnered with Rice University’s Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) to produce an art exhibit about the Asian American experience, the coronavirus disease, and racial inequality.

The exhibit, Faces in the Pandemic, features 10 Asian American artists and runs through November 15 at the Fondren Library on the Rice campus. Individuals can see the exhibit in a virtual walk-through on YouTube (tinyurl.com/y2llpjks) or view it in person by reserving a time on Calendly (tinyurl.com/y3pfwbe4).

Victor Ancheta, a gay Filipino American artist, says he is grateful to be given the opportunity to serve the community through his art. “When the pandemic happened, things were just bleak, so working on [my pieces] gave me the chance to share a little bit of my story and help my community,” he says.

Victor Ancheta
The Good Hour, 2020
Tin metal, clock, LED neon, paint, gesso

Ancheta’s work explicitly explores mortality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and police brutality. His painting The Good Hour features a masked man lying on his deathbed beside George Floyd, one of several Black Americans who was killed by police this year. The piece was designed to remind audiences of the growing number of people who have died and will die from both the coronavirus disease and police brutality.

His resin sculpture Escape features a hijabi, a Black person, an Asian person, and a white person connected by a red string (a metaphor for the red blood coursing through our veins). These figures are sitting on birds trying to fly away from the coronavirus disease. Ancheta created this to emphasize how our survival depends on one another.

“We’re all connected; we all have to work together to solve [these problems],” Ancheta says.

He hopes people will engage with his works and ultimately recognize the inherent humanity in immigrants.

“Immigrants are people, too,” he says. “We experience the same things that other people experience—the failures in life, the joys in life. We also have feelings. We’re not just something abstract that does not count.”

Like Ancheta, Antonius Tin-Bui, a queer nonbinary Vietnamese American who uses they/them pronouns, also works to highlight oppressed and overlooked groups. However, unlike Ancheta, Bui’s practice is largely inspired by their sexuality and gender identity, which pushes them to create in multiple media and question the status quo. They perform, photograph, and laser- and hand-cut paper to “unearth history that is often erased, forgotten, and silenced.”

Antonius-Tin Bui
End Your Silence (Self-Immolation), 2020
Zippo lighters with customized engraving

Determined to highlight the Asian American perspective on the Vietnam War, Bui created a series of customized Zippo lighters. According to Bui, nearly every American soldier fighting in Vietnam had a personalized Zippo lighter engraved with text ranging from sexual to patriotic. In response to this trend, they crafted a set featuring words by Vietnamese American writers, lyrics from the Vietnam War era, and popular slogans used to protest the war. Bui’s art challenges the U.S.’s imperialistic interpretation of the war and expands the viewer’s understanding of the two-decade conflict.

In their 2016 laser-cut paper series ReModel Minorities, Bui provides glimpses of a queer future founded on beauty and questioning. In this collection, they reclaimed the traditional cut-paper design found across East Asia to emphasize pop-art text such as “YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER” and “NOT YOUR SUBMISSIVE BOTTOM.” They wanted to fight against stereotypes about Asian Americans, who are often framed as silent, submissive, and apolitical.

In the end, Bui hopes that the Faces in the Pandemic exhibit sparks reflection on our place in history. “[I want people to feel] recharged, go back into the world, and enact the change they want to see,” they say. “We’re inundated with messages nowadays, and I just hope everyone takes the time to really be with themselves and reflect on how they want to contribute to the future.”

Brandon Tho Harris, a gay Vietnamese American interdisciplinary artist, agrees with Bui. He hopes viewers will reflect and understand that Asian Americans are people who deserve respect and fair treatment.

Harris also wants to see Asian American communities and other marginalized groups work together in the fight for equality. He manifested this desire in his mixed-media exhibit piece titled Not Your Virus, a hand-sewn work of art made of traditional Vietnamese garments (áo dài), conical hats (nón lá), and gold thread.

Brandon Tho Harris
Not Your Virus, 2020
Mixed Media: Traditional Vietnamese Garments (Áo Dài), Conical Hats (Nón Lá), and Gold Thread

“It’s important as a minority group to stand together to be stronger,” he says. “It’s also important that Asian groups address the history of internalized anti-Blackness, because if we look back through history, the Black Panthers always stood up for Vietnamese refugees when we were coming to America. I think that we should stand in solidarity with them.”

In Not Your Virus, Harris explores “motifs of queerness,” or themes of community, resilience, and the dream for a better future. The artwork was a labor of love that highlights the strength of a united Asian American community in Houston.

Like Ancheta and Bui, Harris hopes audiences understand that being a refugee is not a choice, but an act of survival. “Everyone in America came from somewhere, and we need to look at the history of the Vietnamese refugees [so we can] better understand the current refugee crisis here in America,” he says. “We’re just like you; we’re all the same.”

For more information on Rice University’s Houston Asian American Archive’s Faces in the Pandemic exhibit, visit haaa.rice.edu/faces-in-the-pandemic. See more of Harris’ art at brandontharris.com, and follow him on Instagram @brandonthoharris. Check out Ancheta’s works at victorancheta.com. Learn more about Bui’s pieces at antoniusbui.com, and follow them on Instagram @buimonster.

This article appears in the November 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lillian Hoang

Lillian Hoang is a staff reporter for OutSmart Magazine. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism and minor in Asian American studies. She works as a College of Education communication assistant and hopes to become an editor-in-chief.

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