AIS Student Artists Meditate on Identity in Final Show

Education - Saigon/HCMC: Aug. 13, 2018

It’s not uncommon for teenagers to take pictures of themselves, but looking at student artist Chelsea Degenhardt’s photo composition—a work in which the teenager appears nearly denuded crouching to squeeze inside a series of frames—it will take more time to process than your average selfie.

Standing beside her work inside the International Baccalaureate Visual Arts Exhibition, the terminal work that art students must satisfy before obtaining their diplomas, Degenhardt isn’t demure about the complexity of her piece.

“A lot of my work is black and white representing the Yin and Yang,” Degenhardt said. “It’s like (my work) is two completely different colors … different energies, you know, that complement each other.”

There’s a lot to digest the work of Degenhart’s and other senior art students in the “7 Dragons” show from March. The series of revealing photos appear next to a plasticised bowl of noodle soup which has a fake donut inside, a blunt visual metaphor for a collision of cultures but also a frank expression of something the artist has been turning over for the past few years.

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“For my show, my theme was about trying to figure out whether I’m American or Vietnamese”, Degenhardt said.

The artist has family from both lineages, and she said her thinking about the question has culminated in broader questions about cultural and self-identity. The 17-year- old is working through these questions in her show through paintings and sculptures along with the photography work.

The black against the white, “That’s kind of like [my] different cultures.”

“This is me in a box. It’s kind of to represent me figuring a way out or figuring out a way to [...] say ‘Oh okay, you’re Vietnamese’ or ‘Oh, you’re American.’”

“I’m still trying to figure it out”, Degenhardt said seriously. “I haven’t really escaped yet.”

The Big Show

Degenhardt is taking risks with her art as are her fellow student artists.

One of the student works, by Truc Anh Le, is a respectful portrait painting of a Vietnamese soldier draped in tattered, blood-red cloth, it tells a story of struggle and sacrifice – a theme common to many of the works presented across this exhibition. In the middle of the art exhibition lies an actual, working boat moored to the school’s linoleum floor.

“It’s about the Vietnamese people”, Yen Chi Huynh said explaining that the boat is a reference to the riverbound Vietnamese of the Mekong Delta.

The boat also also serves as a stand in for the bitter irony of the dated transport: in the West, the boat serves as a symbol for progress and ascent. A boat on a dry surface exposes the emptiness of the trope.

“It’s supposed to take people away to a farther future”, Yen continues, “but instead in Vietnam it’s trap [sic] people inside.”

This isn’t just the students’ last chance to show for their peers and community before heading to their next, distant destination—most of the international school’s graduates earn a place in the freshman classes of top foreign colleges and universities—but a graded, cumulative project intended to be a showcase of the students’ best works.

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The work presented accounts for just 40 percent of their mark for one of the nine components they must study for their IB.

“They curate, they decide how an audience is going to interact with it”, art teacher Nigel Hall said. “And their work tells a story.”

The artists statement that accompanies each individual student’s group of works maps out the student’s rationale for selecting their story and their particular manner of telling it. This contrasts traditional art curation, which usually just asks that artworks just address a common theme.

“It isn’t a theme, it’s a narrative. It’s a cohesive collection of artwork”, Hall explains.

“It’s a huge matter. The exhibition is a culmination of the work they’ve done in that two-year period.” He added.

It’s during this time that students are becoming self-aware and examining ways that their settings and culture have shaped their experiences and artistic talent.

Though the boat is tragic, Yen said for her personally it’s a statement of perspective that she was only able to get as a student of Australia International School.

“My exhibition is about what restricted [sic] by the culture” and how the new environment of the international school has created a space for her to think critically about the value system she inherited, Yen said.

It’s not an answer to the question, but a foundation for addressing it more honestly. Degenhardt is at a similar point in her exploration of her own cultural identity.

“You don’t really need to have a definite answer because a passport doesn’t really hold your identity. You’re kind of your own person,” Degenhardt said, a reflection of the self-acceptance she crafted for herself while she was making her art.

Image source: AIS