Nhu Xuan Hua distorts her family archive in an expression of her displacement and search for understanding of her past

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The French-Vietnamese artist generates multisensory installations, inquiring the process of making memories through a collision of her cultural references and connections

French-Vietnamese artist Nhu Xuan Hua’s exhibition Hug of a Swan, on show at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam through 04 December, is her first museum showcase. Across four rooms, Hua generates immersive installations widely inspired by baroque temples, backyards in the Paris banlieue, dinner parties, South Asian heat waves and Lunar New Year celebrations. The work reflects her contemporary visual lexicon as well as her desire to plumb the family history that shaped her. Hua also created a dedicated soundtrack for each room, complementing her visuals with Vietnamese tunes (Vincent Yuen Ruiz’s ambient Sewing Bodies; Ngọc Lan and Kiều Nga’s francophone crooner Anh Thì Không (Toi Jamais)) to further relay the link with her heritage.

The nexus of Hua’s exhibition is her project Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory: an ensemble of digitally manipulated family archives, treated not as a precious testimony of the past but rather a starting point for exploration and reappraisal. Hua intervenes on photographs of her family, and the result is eerie, underscoring the intangibility of the past and how even one’s own family remains mysterious. Bodies congregating comfortably around a stemware-strewn table are rendered faceless (“Birthday Rue des vignes – Archive from year 88); relatives posed primly before dark floral curtains are turned into spectral torsos melting into their trousers (“Family portrait at the wedding – Archive from year 85).

“Everybody sees different things. Many people see ghosts, but many people see movement,” Hua says over coffee at a café in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. “Technically, the distortion that I create is a very simple process — it’s just a tool with Photoshop — but the point is what it reveals. For me, it resonates with me trying to read my story of myself and my family.”

Though she was born here, Hua felt she had to break out of her native France, where cultural assimilation is incentivised over the celebration of origin stories for diasporic residents. She moved to London in 2012, which felt like a more fitting setting, where she remained until the Covid-19 pandemic, when she moved back to Paris. Nevertheless, the feeling of community she was fostering in England’s capital became even more expansive when Hua visited Vietnam for the first time as an adult, in 2016. She has since returned there regularly.

The distorted images of Tropism were part of Hua’s wider endeavour of visiting and interviewing different family members dispersed throughout Vietnam, Canada, Belgium, and France, in order to better understand her heritage and herself. “I started collecting sounds, conversations, papers, little words, to put back together the puzzle pieces,” she says. Her impetus was “rebuilding — or just building — a new story.” 

While researching the process of making memories, Hua read Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others (2017), in which the author takes a deconstructive approach to language. For example, the word ‘remembering’ is parsed as the act of putting together something that has been dismembered: a means of reshaping. Hua also nods to Russian-French author Nathalie Sarraute’s work Tropismes (1939), for which she rethinks the scientific term ‘tropism’ as a kind of psychological interiority. The symbolism of this resonated with Hua so much that she borrowed the term for her own series. Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory was published by Area Books this September in tandem with the show’s opening.

“I don’t know where I belong, you know? I’ve always hated ‘fusion’ food, because I don’t understand why you don’t just keep the traditional dish, which is excellent! But the more I grow up, the more I understand and accept the fact that we are a mix of a lot of things.”

 

Tropisms is a departure from Hua’s commercial work, which she completes for clients like Maison Martin Margiela and TIME magazine, but she doesn’t see these practices as entirely separate. Her commissions consistently spotlight and champion Asian identity: for TIME she shot covers featuring K-pop sensation BTS in 2018 and Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu in 2022. A selection of her commissioned work is included seamlessly in her exhibition. 

Hua is still wrestling with this slippery sense of personhood. “I don’t know where I belong, you know?” she admits. “I’ve always hated ‘fusion’ food, because I don’t understand why you don’t just keep the traditional dish, which is excellent! But the more I grow up, the more I understand and accept the fact that we are a mix of a lot of things.”

nhuxuanhua.com

Hug of a Swan is in its final weeks, on show at Huis Marseille, Museum of Photography in Amsterdam

Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory is published by Area Books

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. Her words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and others.