Queer stories, collected.

Your first experience of The Cabinet exhibition is the colourful and dizzying archway created by visual artist Lại Thị Diệu Hà, a dramatic introduction to the main space which is filled with intriguing boxes and cases full of objects. The exhibition itself is made up of 80 personal belongings, each with its own story. The stories are those of individuals – personal experiences of love, of persecution, violence and acceptance – but together they paint a striking picture of the LGBT community in Vietnam.

The Hydra Archway

‘I asked Lại Thị Diệu Hà [to do this piece]. She’s a very controversial visual artist because she often uses sexuality and her own body in her work and performances. When she looked at [the logo for the exhibit] she thought it looked like a hydra. The hydra doesn’t have a sex, it’s a mixture, it isn’t male or female.

I like that because it’s not necessary to distinguish between men and women and their biological characteristics. We want to talk about people – those who experience a lot of stress and persecution from society and their families. They have their own story and we want to tell them.

[The hydra] is very sensitive to its environment and though not many people recognise it, [the structure] perfectly illustrates what we want to say. She also wanted to tease the viewer and so made it look a bit like an optical illusion. What you see is not all that there is; it’s the queer in its details. She used to go to this university and she knows that her work is always looked at closely to find out exactly what she means, so no one knew about this work until the opening.’

Empty Box and Lock

‘The item that was here was my favourite, but it had to be removed. The lock to me represents society, the government, organisations rather than the person. The box looks empty, but is it empty? We don’t know. We kept it here so people know we have to do more, ask the questions and create a tolerant environment so people can speak up.’

Sharing – The Sharing Shelves

‘When I talked with the rest of the group, we couldn’t agree on how to divide the different items, so this is a compromise where we didn’t need to label each story. We want to feel the stories rather than giving them a specific direction.

Some people think we don’t have enough objects, but that’s not true. We had all these stories, but two days before the opening we had to move some of them. So instead of trying to find something else to put there, we decided to make it like this. If [the viewer] doesn’t understand, if they assume that the shelf doesn’t have a story, they can click [on a tablet] and see that we simply couldn’t tell the story. This will give them some kind of understanding or raise more questions as to why we can’t tell this particular story at this moment.’

Identity – Accessories of an Effeminate Medium

‘Personally I like this story because usually a lot of organisations focus only on LGBT or gay rights, especially same-sex marriage. Some communities are left out. For example the đồng cô, or effeminate mediums, don’t really have a positive image in society. They are not only people in same-sex relationships, but they are also mediums, so as the LGBT movement grows stronger and stronger, they do not want to associate themselves with this community because it’s considered superstitious.
This guy considers himself a medium – he’s very young, a doctor and also a medium. He also identifies as bisexual. He didn’t feel like he belonged to this movement. But he brought this story and talked about his uncle, who has passed away. [His uncle] was married and had children, but all his life he had relationships with men. No one in his family talked about his homosexuality. They spread rumours behind his back but nobody asked him directly if he was a homosexual. They always considered him a spirit, a goddess. I like this because I want to bring more awareness to the fact, that identity is not always about being straight, gay or lesbian but that it’s more complicated than that.’

Sorrow – A Child’s Items

‘[The owner of these items] is a teenager and when his father found out that he had a relationship with another boy, he got angry and carefully examined all the items the boy owned, the clothes he wore and questioning whether they were appropriate or not. His mother cut up the teddy bear, and said ‘no you’re a boy, you can’t have this’, and threw it away. [His father] also thought this item [the key-chain] wasn’t manly and the pants he said were too colourful, not for boys. They cut them up and threw them away. This [collection of items] also had a razor, but when we applied for the license, the officer required us to remove it.’

Pride – School Project Poster
‘This student had an assignment in his class to talk about law. So he took advantage of that and decided to talk about LGBT rights. He drew [the poster] and coloured it to present it to the class. While he was talking, some people pointed at the word ‘human rights’, which is still considered a sensitive subject, and said that he was a traitor, because usually someone who wants to talk about human rights is associated with being against the government. But he was very brave and tried to calm down and present to the class anyway. The good thing was that the teacher was very supportive. He said that his group, especially this boy, were very brave and gave them the highest score in the class. So I think it’s a very beautiful story about how Vietnamese society has changed, and how the young people can take action.” 

‘The Cabinet’ is on until 31 March at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, at 42 Yết Kiêu, Hà Nội. It is a capacity-building project and community-based exhibition supported by UNESCO, the Swedish Institute, museums and NGOs in Vietnam and Sweden.