Artistic Expression of the Vietnamese Diaspora

The expression of characteristics that determine our identity is a theme commonly explored by artists through their work; a construction of who we are as individuals, a community and as a society. Diasporic artists, who have migrated from one part of the world to another, often express their diverse experiences of varying cultures and dual identities – which challenge stereotypical ideas, offering alternative and unique narratives. Some of these artists have transformed even the most painful experiences of displacement into radical and vibrant forms of self-expression.

The diasporic Vietnamese art community is one that has many rich and engaging stories to express in a multitude of mediums. Their work fosters a sense of belonging for upcoming generations, resisting stereotypical conventions linked to colonialism and expanding the audience for Vietnamese art across the globe.

Bảo Vương is one of these artists who turned his painstaking journey into a visual portrayal. Bao was born in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, and fled with his family as part of the "boat people" wave of refugees fleeing Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. He grew up in France and returned to Vietnam to work as a visual artist. In 2018, he began a series of black monochromes titled “The Crossing”, which represent the seas he had to cross as a child. He uses copious amounts of paint, and with a knife, scrupulously sketches and sculpts each wave. These waves not only denote the trauma of the nights he spent on the high seas with his family, but visions of the same nights that thousands of other refugees have experienced for centuries. 

His older work was painted with tar, leftover gasoline and dirty engine oil as his mother recounted being very close to the engine when they were on the boat – where the smell of tar pervaded their senses. He carried that forward in “The Crossing” by working closely with thick, black oil paint, evoking feelings of fear and the suffering of exile. However, the reflections of light on the sculpted black waves represent the glimmer of hope for a better world. 

In his more recent work, he illustrates the exile of his family and expresses the history of his heritage using raw materials like water, incense sticks, rice cakes and plastic bags. 



The Crossing 107 - Lisbonne, 2022
Oil, acrylic, graphite powder and incense stem ash on canvas
200 x 150 cm

Natalie Nong, an emerging artist in California, from a younger diasporic generation discusses what it’s like to be a part of two cultures at once. Being the first in her family to be born in the US, she found herself feeling a disconnect with her Vietnamese heritage. Exploring her identity through her digital illustrations and poetry, Natalie has found that her art is a tool that makes her feel more connected. She is currently working on a fantasy story called “Broken Realms”, surrounding the roles of light and dark and the importance of balance. It is inspired by Vietnamese folklore, “Lac Long Quan” – the legend of Vietnam’s Dragon Lord and characters such as Yen who is heavily inspired by Vietnamese culture. Her character design is based on the traditional dress, Ao Dai. 

Natalie Nong
‘Downtown’, 2022
Digital Art

Natalie Nong
Character sketch of ‘Yen’
Digital Art

Both of these artists have contrasting artistic styles and paint differing subject matter, yet there is unity in the idea of sharing their story and parts of their identity. There exists a multiverse of diverse narratives, expressions of complex identities and glorious works of diaspora art that should be celebrated and passed on to current and future generations around the world.

Written by Eman Faheem.

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