Crossing Borders: Interview with James Nguyen

Lucy Ainsworth

Lucy Ainsworth: Public space, specifically land, is politically and socially loaded. You often work in public space. How do you interrogate the politics of land and public space through your work?

James Nguyen: Land and geography contribute significantly to how we see ourselves. Between possessing land and being possessed by the land, and inevitably having to share the spaces you occupy, concepts around land and belonging to land are definitely loaded.

Land for my family has always been about continuity and subsistence; about passing on, and subdividing land from one generation to the next. The impact of successive wars meant that my family had to abandon their tea and coffee plantations from the most northern parts of Vietnam to continue a cycle of cutting down jungles to establish plantations further and further south. Carrying the seeds of their crops, they loaded their pockets with fistfuls of soil from the land they left to scatter over their new plot of land. A ritualistic baptism to stake a claim, and ultimately erasing the many clans that preceded them. This cycle of displacement by the displaced seemingly ended when they found themselves in the western suburbs of Sydney. Australian border security and strict quarantine protocols effectively ended their smuggling of fistfuls of soil from one homeland to another.

For migrants and refugees in Australia, land takes on additional significance. To own the requisite quarter-acre block materially demonstrates self-worth and the capacity to unequivocally fend off the label of ‘charity case’ or ‘freeloader.’ Apart from the stability that land ownership offers to a displaced person coming from a state of exile, being a rate-payer enables you to participate socially and enjoy public spaces with the self-knowledge that you too have a stake, and therefore a share, in the nation. These narratives inevitably inform some of my practice, especially when I try to process ideas around the politics of autonomy, and the many caveats imposed by the state.


Crane Shot (Part I), Attempt No.3, 2014, B & W Moving image, 7.02 min. Courtesy Georgia Brown, Nguyen Thi Kim Dung and Nguyen Ngoc Cu, James Nguyen & Joey Nguyen. Image: Georgia Brown


LA: You recently made The Good Earth, a site-specific garden outside Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC) that responded to some of the issues facing the different communities that live in Campbelltown and Western Sydney more broadly. What were some of the issues you were looking at?

JN: The work emerged from seeing and experiencing the huge development projects and rate of building occurring in Western Sydney. I began to think about how people use and share land, of how it was increasingly subdivided and how this momentum seemed to erase and homogeneously flatten the many histories that came before.

I started off with strategies to allow people to cultivate and farm small vegetables and crops, realising that much of the prime agricultural and productive lands around Glenfield and Campbelltown were being developed into new homes and apartments. This led me to think about the market gardens and hobby farms, once owned by migrants and refugees, which provided fresh produce to Sydney and its outskirts. Following this, the history of the First Nations claim to sovereignty and the effect of colonisers such as Governor Macquarie in Campbelltown and the Appin massacres.

I observed how CAC sits on council land, that in effect is public space, a ‘neutral’ space with its own history – one that is Indigenous, colonial and expansively lawned. I wanted to add a garden bed that both disrupted and improved the soil of the green. I worked with the Macarthur Centre for Sustainable Living and learnt some gardening skills. The soil I used to fill in the bed was from my dad’s property, compost sourced from WHOS at Rozelle and the bed was sown with bird seed and veggies from my aunty’s garden. Once the exhibition was over, the plants were removed and a new strip of lawn layered over the soil. There is still a distinct linear mark where an improved strip of soil continues to disrupt a perfectly manicured lawn in front of CAC.


Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, Nguyen Thi Kim Nhung & James Nguyen, Rest Ice Compression, 2016, B & W Two Channel Moving Image, 6:01min – 10:26 min. Courtesy Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, Nguyen Thi Kim Nhung & James Nguyen. Image: James Nguyen.


LA: The built environment greatly contributes to how we use space. Part of your current research looks at the history of Nissen Huts, specifically their relationship to migration in Australia. Can you explain your interest in these and how they inform your current research?  

JN: Around the time I was making the work at CAC, I was also looking at places along the Georges River to film with my mum and aunty. I discovered that at Holsworthy there used to be a migrant hostel which was previously an Aboriginal sanctuary. Doing further research, I became more aware of the profound significance of the site as, not only a sanctuary, but a working farmstead with historic land claims by the original Indigenous families and clans that lived on the site. Coincidentally, my dad was placed in the nearby East Hills Migrant Hostel when he came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee. These connections made me rethink the culpability of recent arrivals, and their often unintended, albeit deliberate distancing from conversations around Indigenous rights. Although my dad arrived at the tail-end of the Vietnamese refugee intake program, I have calculated that it wasn’t even 33 years between the time my dad set foot at the migrant hostel and the last Indigenous families were removed from the same site.


Nguyen Thi Kim Dung & James Nguyen, Portion 53, 2017, Two Channel Moving Image and Translated Poem written by Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, 4:14min – 4:20 min. Courtesy Nguyen Thi Kim Dung & James Nguyen. Image: James Nguyen.


LA: It’s interesting that these historic buildings represent a crossroads for two of the most important issues facing contemporary Australia – immigration and Indigenous land rights. How do these issues sit within your work?

JN: The mythical promise of a ‘fresh start’ with a ‘clean slate’ for migrants and refugees who are lucky enough not to be vilified as ‘illegals’ is a persistent colonial throwback. Coming to an alien place to be told it is up to you to create your own history – through rebuilding your life and overcoming adversity – without much connection to the disputed histories that came before simply reaffirms the continued erasure of First Australians. Despite the many obstacles that new arrivals face, the opportunities and successes afforded to ‘model’ minorities, migrants and refugees are available on the proviso that another set of people are removed and displaced from their ancestral lands. Although the immigrant role in this national program of continual erasure and forgetfulness may have been inadvertent, it should be acknowledged. If people with recent immigrant backgrounds continue to blame shift the perpetration of First Nations land dispossession to the First Fleet and Convict-Settlers then they too become instrumental to colonial denialism.

By simply pointing to an example of recent history at Holsworthy we start to realise that the new lives that these immigrants and refugees were afforded was only possible by erasing the Indigenous histories and physical spaces that came before. By regularly making art with my family, I can share with them knowledge I have learned. Collaboration becomes a process of learning, where I discover more about my family history, and they realise a little about the complicated local histories around them. My aunty has realised how we, as a family, have always been colonising plantation growers, displacing the indigenous clans and hill-tribes in Vietnam as we ourselves were being displaced by war. It wasn’t a huge jump for her to recognise that as a family we continue this process.

By collaborating with them on these art projects, we all learn from one another. Along with my parents, I have been meeting with the Gangdangarra Aboriginal Land Council to start conversations about how occupations continue to conceal and pit histories against each other. Perhaps by just hanging out, talking about art and making art, we can begin to acknowledge the mutuality of displacement and gain a little insight into the unjust condition of being a foreigner and exile in your own country and in your own landscape.


The Good Earth, 2017, Site Specific Garden Bed, Courtesy James Nguyen & Campbeltown Arts Centre. Image: James Nguyen.

Lucy Ainsworth is a curator and writer based in Sydney. She is currently Curator & Exhibition Coordinator at UNSW Galleries, UNSW Art & Design. Her...


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