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Photographing the Forgotten Vietnamese Widows of Japanese WWII Soldiers

Phan Quang, "Re/Cover no. 5" (2013) (all images courtesy the artist unless indicated otherwise)
Phan Quang, “Re/Cover no. 5” (2013) (all images courtesy the artist unless indicated otherwise)

When we talk about Japan and Vietnam in the 1940s, we discuss World War II, invasions, colonialism, and other monumental events that unfolded in this part of the world, but sent ripples across the globe. These grand historical narratives are crude tools used to summarize — but that never fully explain — what happened. In Vietnam, as in most countries, the way we remember such histories is embedded with propaganda. The stories we don’t tell, the names we forget, the people we don’t eulogize are greater in number by far than the ones we do. Vietnamese conceptual artist Phan Quang’s new series on view at Ho Chi Minh City’s Blanc Art Space, Re/Cover, is an evocative micro-history lost to most textbooks, but important nonetheless.

In 2011, Phan began researching Vietnamese women who had children with Japanese soldiers between 1940 and 1955. Although Japan was defeated and officially left Vietnam in 1945, some soldiers stayed behind until 1954–55, when their government demanded their return. Within that short window of time, when the whole world was at war and then struggling to rebuild, some Vietnamese women and Japanese soldiers fell in love and had children. While Vietnamese history decries and demonizes the invasion, and would try to ostracize these children as the products of prostitution or rapes by invaders, Phan began to find very different stories, many of them touching stories of love and remembrance, stories that did not fit into the dominant narrative.

Phan Quang, "Re/Cover no. 4" (2013)
Phan Quang, “Re/Cover no. 4” (2013)

Phan’s photographs show these women and their children, covered in a special kind of Japanese cloth used during wedding ceremonies. This veil represents the marriage of two cultures whose union was never officially recognized. Phan bought the sheer cloth directly from a specialty factory in Kyoto during a residency in Japan in 2013. The fabric becomes a haunting yet warm reminder of the Vietnamese women’s absent partners.

Installation shot provided by the curator.
Installation view of Phan Quang’s ‘Re/Cover’ at Blanc Art Space (photo courtesy Nguyen Nhu Huy) (click to enlarge)

Phan, whose art practice is informed by his years of work as a photojournalist, investigated these women’s stories, slowly building close relationships with them, which come through in the resulting images. The research, historical context, and formal portrait style of Phan’s series are reminiscent of traditional photojournalism, but with the veil he builds a poetic and abstracted picture as well. As curator Nguyen Nhu Huy told me over email, “What he tries to produce, to me, is the reflection, the complication but not the simplification of things.” Nguyen believes this kind of heavily researched, poetic, interpersonal storytelling embodies a “micro-historical voice,” an incredibly powerful counter-narrative in the face of the reductive logic of official histories.

As Nguyen writes in the catalogue essay, this series (and Phan’s work as a whole) “visualizes this way of writing histories, by showing us the huge store of materials in the past, not as the domain of concluded stories/decisions, but as the new ideas, imaginations, and possibilities for our interpretation.”

Looking at the cover photograph of the exhibition catalogue, “Re/Cover no. 5” (2013), this rings true. We see Nguyen Thi Thu shrouded in the veil, with her hand resting gently atop a photograph of her late Japanese husband, as if he were present next to her. We see a blank spot where the photograph was taken down from the wall, next to a Vietnamese-style altar on which another photograph of her husband, various votive offerings, and other important objects rest.

Phan Quang, "Re/Cover no. 8" (2013)
Phan Quang, “Re/Cover no. 8” (2013)

Re/Cover is a mirror for us to look back at history, to reflect on all of its complexities and the very human stories at its center. In the photograph “Re/Cover no. 8,” (2013) we see an image of Ho Chi Minh City looming large in the room, while the subject remains enamored with her late Japanese partner. These are the histories that don’t neatly fit in and therefore are purposefully forgotten. Like these women, Phan’s photos are powerful testaments to the importance of these micro-histories and counter-narratives to “official” accounts of our past.

Phan Quang’s Re/Cover is on view at Blanc Art Gallery (57 D Tu Xuong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) through July 20.

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