A piece originally published on Project Yellow Dress, republished on Project Ava with permission of the artist.
If you search for images of Vietnamese Boat People, you will find many photographs of people crammed inside small wooden fishing boats. These pictures usually show people struggling to survive under the hot sun or through heavy rain storms, all in the midst of a vast ocean. Often, many Vietnamese Boat People were on the brink of life and death, having risked their entire lives to journey across the ocean toward a more promising future.
This painting was painted as a dedication to my parents and my family, but also to the many other people who also endured this arduous journey. Using mixed-media of watercolors and ink, I first painted the boat lightly by looking at photographs (via the Library of Congress photographs and prints database) to see how these wooden boats were structured. I felt that by using a watercolor medium, the transparency effect would convey the concept between life and death, as the imagery of both the boat and the ocean water would overlap and no major lines or shapes are separating one another.
When it came to the depicting the people, I had a really hard time. I went through multiple drafts to try and find the right stylistic features to convey the people crammed inside a boat. In the end I did rough sketches filled with chaotic, gray and black lines to indicate a group of people, sitting very closely together or piled over one another. By not creating portrait-like characters, I believe that when one looks at the painting, there is an element of inclusiveness—being about to have an open dialogue about this moment whether or not one has been through it or know someone who has.
I thought a lot about my mom in the process of painting this image. She was 25 years old (my age today) when she decided to get on a boat just like this one and flee her home. During the journey, she almost drowned. Of the group of people from her village who were on the same boat, only she and her youngest brother survived. For days they had little or no water, and they constantly prayed that they would not meet any pirates or other dangerous obstacles along the way. To me, this painting is something I value because I know that this journey is something that plays a huge part in my mom’s history, as well as mine. I know very well that I am here today because of her perseverance.
Project Yellow Dress (PYD) is a website focusing on sharing and highlighting the histories, experiences, and voices of Vietnamese Boat People and the wider Southeast Asian community. We currently have several campaigns taking place, including a Call for Submissions for art pieces (photos, creative art, poetry, reflections, etc.,), a Vietnamese Boat People Interview Project, and a Southeast Asian American Survey Project. For more information, please check out at projectyellowdress.squarespace.com.