Vietnamese Curator Found The Big Truths In Small Stories
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 17, 2012
With the sudden death of art historian and curator Dr Boitran Huynh-Beattie, Australia’s Vietnamese community has lost a remarkable moral leader, and the Australian arts community has lost an important bridge-builder between cultures.
Art historian, curator, intellectual and pioneer, Dr Boitran Huynh-Beattie made it her life's mission to bring Vietnamese art and artists to the attention of the wider world. In the little more than a decade since she settled in Australia, she was a transformational presence in the large Vietnamese diaspora in southwest Sydney, using art to help heal a community that is still traumatised by war.
Born in 1957 in the town of Biên Hòa in Đong Nai province, about 30 kilometres east of Saigon, Boitran's parents ran two bookshops. She grew up during the Vietnam conflict and completed high school in 1975, just as Saigon was being overrun by the Communist North Vietnamese forces. She studied at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University and later taught at the fine arts college in her home town, teaching herself English by listening to illegal Voice of America radio broadcasts in the evenings.
She came to Australia first in 1995, not as a refugee but as a student, earning a graduate diploma in art history at Monash University before going back home to teach. In 2002 she was awarded an Australian Ph.D. scholarship and returned to study at the Sydney College of the Arts at Sydney University. Her Ph.D. thesis, Vietnamese Aesthetics from 1925 Onwards, was an extraordinary achievement given the war and her recently acquired English skills. Moreover her thesis made a significant contribution to scholarship about the birth of modern art in Vietnam, not least in the way it unearthed a suppressed history of South Vietnamese artists.
Diminutive and quietly spoken, Boitran for the rest of her life continued, with great determination, to seek out Vietnamese artists from both the north and the south, and throughout the Vietnamese diaspora, interviewing them and documenting their work.
For much of the past decade she had a close association as a researcher and curator with the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in southwest Sydney. Casula Powerhouse is one of a ring of community arts centres around western Sydney that stands as one of the undoubted achievements of the New South Wales Carr Labor Government. Between 1998 and 2008, under the directorship of Kon Gouriotis, the Casula Powerhouse began to focus on producing artworks by and for the local community, building close ties with the large Vietnamese community settled around nearby Cabramatta and mounting a string of innovative projects on Vietnamese themes, many with Boitran Huynh-Beattie's involvement.
Now director of the Australian Centre for Photography, Kon Gouriotis says Boitran was attracted to Casula Powerhouse because it was an optimistic and democratic space. He says she felt a new sense of freedom in Australia after leaving behind a regime that had constrained people's voices:
"I think there is a great universal message in what she did. Her humanity rose above all the oppressive systems and all the nonsense. She was dedicated to artists being able to express themselves as freely as possible, and she was absolutely selfless in her commitment to uncovering the life stories of other artists who had been buried. She was relentless about truth and she was always thinking about future generations," Gouriotis says.
Between 2007 and 2009 Boitran produced a ground-breaking project for Casula Powerhouse about the Vietnam War called Nam Bang! The title refers both to the colloquial name for Vietnam used by American soldiers and to a scornful imperial Chinese term for Vietnam that translates as "southern state". Focussing on the continuing impact of the war on the next generation, the exhibition brought together works by contemporary Vietnamese and Vietnamese diaspora artists, Australian and American Vietnam War veterans, and their children.
Dai Le, a member of the Nam Bang! organising committee and a former Liberal Party candidate for the state parliamentary seat of Cabramatta, says its significance was the open and contemporary way in which it treated what had hitherto been a restricted subject in the local Vietnamese community. "It was really the first time that different voices, including artists who were born in Australia, were allowed to express what the Vietnam War meant to them. And it made a permanent contribution in that Vietnamese-Australian artists now feel they are free to explore these issues from their own perspectives in a way they never were before."
Dai adds that both Nam Bang!, and an associated Casula Powerhouse exhibition a few weeks earlier called Viet Nam Voices, ran into powerful opposition from the right-wing faction that dominates the NSW Chapter of the Vietnamese Community Association (VCA), an umbrella group representing almost a hundred smaller community organisations. At the time of the Casula exhibitions, attacks against her flared up, with accusations in the local Vietnamese-language press that Casula Powerhouse was a Communist cell manipulating the local community and run by her.
NSW Liberal Party right-wing faction boss David Clarke MLC gatecrashed the opening of the Viet Nam Voices exhibition, accusing the organisers of being communists and causing the mayor of Liverpool to write to the president of the NSW Legislative Council complaining about his boorish behaviour.
According to Nicholas Tsoutas of the Sydney College of the Arts, a former artistic director at Casula Powerhouse, opposition to the Viet Nam Voices and Nam Bang! exhibitions even went as far as violent intimidation: "One artist was threatened into withdrawing her work from the exhibition and another had his house attacked."
Writing in the catalogue essay for the Nam Bang! exhibition, Boitran suggested that the opposition to Nam Bang! and Viet Nam Voices needed to be understood in terms of the intergenerational conflict in the Vietnamese community in Australia. "One cannot ignore the suffering and residual hatred resulting from the Vietnam War, that like unfinished business can flare up under the slightest provocation," she wrote. "The Nam Bang! exhibition examines a reality that when the Vietnam War ended, the psychological and cultural issues common to most post-war societies were born."
Former Liberal Party candidate for Cabramatta Dai Le says it's unlikely that the majority of the local Vietnamese community connected with Nam Bang! Although she is careful to acknowledge the continuing pain of many in the Vietnamese community who lost loved ones at the hands of the Communists, including her own family, Dai says the attacks on the Viet Nam Voices and Nam Bang! projects were "ridiculous", and that "the leadership of the NSW Vietnamese Community Association is stuck in the world of 1970 and still fighting the Viet Cong in their heads."
"No matter how many times young Vietnamese have risen up through that and tried to talk about the Vietnam War from a different perspective, they have not been allowed to," Dai Le says. "The only story that is permitted is that of the millions who suffered and died at the hands of the Communist butchers. If you want to explore the war from any other perspective, you get condemned. Most of the leadership of the Vietnamese Community Association in New South Wales is made up of former South Vietnamese generals or people who fought in the South Vietnamese army, and they won't let go. Even if you travel back to Vietnam you are condemned. But the fact is that many Vietnamese-Australians are increasingly going back to do business."
Since 2009, Boitran had been working at Wollongong University on the AustLit database, a collaboration between a number of Australian universities and the National Library of Australia to create a research database of Australian writing. Boitran helped document thousands of Vietnamese language poems, articles and books that have been produced in Australia. Most of the works had not been previously recorded or acknowledged.
Speaking at a memorial service in Boitran's honour, Dr Michael Jacklin of Wollongong University said Boitran had been "dedicated to making Vietnamese culture in all its forms better known to all Australians."
Boitran Huynh-Beattie was attending a meeting at Singapore's National Art Museum when she collapsed and died of a ruptured brain aneurysm on January 16. She is survived by her artist husband, Ray Beattie, and a son, daughter and grandchild. She was planning to begin work this year on a book building on years of research about the art made in South Vietnam during the war years.
A memorial service for Boitran held at Casula Powerhouse on February 11 saw a torrent of tears, words, poetry and music, as friends and colleagues delivered one extraordinary eulogy after another. One eulogist, Eric Aarons, described a "ribbon of steel in her make-up" that enabled Boitran to repel attempts of domination and bullying.
Another, Nicholas Tsoutas of the Sydney College of the Arts, said Boitran Huynh-Beattie had displayed great personal courage in refusing to remain silent and negotiating her way through the complex political factionalism that exists in the Vietnamese diaspora community. Boitran had always paid particular attention to "small stories", he said, because she knew this was where the biggest truths invariably are found. Most importantly, she believed that as a curator she had a social and even a moral mission, working to give voice to ordinary people, heal divisions, and bring the Australian and Vietnamese communities closer together.
Nicholas Tsoutas says Boitran was quietly determined, unfailing polite, and she didn't get flustered. "She did get nervous, because she understood the reality of the threat of violence from the Vietnam War days," Tsoutas says. "But her significance and her beauty was that she was not about threatening people, but about recovering history in a way that sidestepped politics and spoke instead about peace and harmony. What she was providing was the kind of very articulate moral leadership to the community that opens doors for people to walk through."