Interview #93 — James Nguyen

James Nguyen is a visual artist who works with documentary, installation and performance. Often collaborating with family and friends, together they create work that examines the politics of art, self-representation and how decolonising strategies can contribute to diasporic dialogues. 

He currently has work at the Museum of Contemporary Art for The National 2019: New Australian Art, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre for Those Monuments Don’t Know Us and RMIT Gallery for Bruised: Art Action and Ecology in Asia.

James Nguyen talked to Andy Butler about making art with family, displacement and colonisation, and how to be an artist.


You started out as a pharmacist, and then made your way towards an art practice. How did that shift in career come about, and what prompted it?
I always wanted to be an artist but decided to defer this for a more conventional career in pharmacy. After graduating, I worked for a few years in the field. I have to give full credit to my friends from high school who were not only insightful enough to recognise that I was rundown and feeling depressed from that job, but intervened by buying me night painting classes at the National Art School. After that I became an artist.

 I’m not only grateful for my irreplaceable group of friends, but glad to have worked in public health before going into the visual arts. Pharmacy still pays the bills.

You often work with family and friends for different art projects. What has drawn you to working with them?
I like hanging out with friends and family. Making art is probably the easiest and least confrontational foil for sharing my perspectives, ideas, and very often, disagreements with those around me. I think art can offer a space for people to come together and collaborate in different ways. In making art with family, I am constantly reminded of the creative capacity, intelligence and dignity of the people who I sometimes take for granted.  

Has art making changed or deepened the relationships with your family members? Do they enjoy the process as much as you do?
It has deepened relationships with people around me. For those who choose to join in, there’s a shared artistic outcome that we’ll always have together. Beyond that, these interactions sometimes do filter out into daily life. I for one have a greater appreciation of where my family and friends come from, and what motivates their reading of the world.

In the case of educated immigrant and refugee women like my mum and aunty, they arrived in Australia facing an unenviable expectation to commit themselves to low-paid work and raising the family. Their time and energy has been spent ensuring that their children and husbands (generally seen as having greater earning potential and employability) receive the education and care that they deny to themselves. By the time their kids graduate, and their husbands are integrated into the workforce, they are left behind.

 They’re restricted by their language skills and a set of social relationships in a way they never would have happened in their country of origin.

I grew up expecting from my mum and aunty an uncomplaining level of care and duty without ever seriously acknowledging their personal sacrifice and autonomy beyond this carer role. The process of sharing my practice with my mum and aunty and talking to them through art has allowed for a kind of dialogue of critique and feedback that I had not previously anticipated. Their contributions and complicity as collaborators in my work has given me a belated realisation of their history and life pre-dating both me, and their exile in to this new country. 

It was only through doing some art projects with my mum that I found out she had been writing poems at the sewing machine, as she assembled garments in the sweat-shop. Similarly, my aunty has a wicked sense of stagecraft carried over from her school days.

I guess it’s just like any relationship with family, it’s often tedious but if you actually invest time and energy with people, you get to know them a little better and hopefully get to eventually recognise their worth beyond their use value.

 I’m not sure if they enjoy this any more than I do, but the process can be as frustrating as it is fulfilling. It has also made me really appreciate aspects of making work independently of the input of my family and friends, ha!

It was only through doing some art projects with my mum that I found out she had been writing poems at the sewing machine, as she assembled garments in the sweat-shop.

 You’ve got some work in The National - New Australian Art at the moment. Can you tell me a bit more about the work you’ve made for it?
I’ve developed a three channel video work called Portion 53. It basically uses the premise of my dad’s arrival as a refugee at the East Hills Hostel in deep suburban Sydney. From this point, the work moves through concepts of loss and exile, focusing on the histories, disruptions, and violent erasures that preceded his arrival.

Before it was the East Hills Hostel the site was a military base. Its migrant and military use was preceded by the forced removal of local Aboriginal families from the site in 1949. Originally a Dharawal settlement, this site had one of the earliest recorded Indigenous land claims. In 1857, Dharawal man Jonathon Goggey wrote a petition and appealed to the governor for long-term occupation after being forced off his father’s farm by a white neighbour. His family was able to remain, but never afforded any legal rights, ultimately this meant they could be removed by the military following World War II. Only 34 years before my dad arrived.

The work involves my dad returning to the site of his arrival, and my mum’s acknowledgement of our complicit occupation of Dharawal land. Using research done by Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow and their book “Rivers and Resilience, Aboriginal People on Sydney’s Georges River” 2009, my family, and friend Kezia Yap (the composer for the project), began to process concepts of contingent occupancies, the opportunism of war, and the immigration strategy of using displaced bodies in order to displace traditional owners – an integral part Australia’s settler-colonial amnesia.

The role of non-white migrants in the colonial project in Australia is something that you’ve explored before. Why are you interested in these ideas? Has your own history drawn you towards these sorts of questions in your practice?
I guess to call myself “Australian” I need to at least have a basic understanding of the history of this country. I think it’s a personal responsibility to seek complex narratives and dialogues that drill more critically in to Australia’s history as an environmental, colonial, immigrant, global and Indigenous space.

 To better situate myself and my family within the present and future imaginations of Australia, we are compelled to engage in the very infrastructures and histories that we, as new Australian citizens, have fundamentally inherited the very moment we set foot on Australian soil.

From this situation, I don’t want to replicate or perpetuate stories that white Australia wants me to tell about myself and my family for its own benefit. The model minority performing the immigrant struggle… just to make the mainstream feel woke and involved—it is a waste of my time.

As I see it, the fact that parts of Australian society are still avoidant of taking responsibility, and could still be so “shrill” and “hysterical” about simply acknowledging the historic and continued colonial and systemic violence against First Nation bodies and experiences is evidence that these Australians inherently lack the logic, objectivity and capacity to deal with the very problems it deflects onto others. Perhaps, recent immigrants (themselves having experienced both loss and reinvention) are be better placed to lead Australia by example. Without inheriting the colonial burden of guilt and denial, recent immigrants are profoundly better placed to confront and reshape the systemic obstacles that continue to cloud the judgement of earlier waves of colonisers and settlers.

 In saying that, even as refugees and immigrants, we have (my family included) benefited from and thrived in a country whose establishment has granted us conditions and opportunities (often begrudgingly) to start afresh, to reinvent ourselves - while systemically and deliberately excluding others from these possibilities. Similarly, Vietnam (my parents’ country of origin) has itself undergone both historic and perpetual forms of colonisation, and Indigenous displacement. The chaos of war also created conditions where it was excusable for governments to violently displace one group of people, in order to make room for another group of displaced peoples.

 Ultimately as colonisers of space, I don’t think there’s much separation between ethnic/non-ethnic ideologies of oppression and resistance. We all have to struggle to be ok with simply living and existing in these uncomfortable spaces.

 You’ve also got work in the exhibition Those Monuments Don’t Know Us, where you retell parts of ‘The Magic Pudding’ with your auntie and mum. How did the idea for this work come about? Why were you drawn to this particular story?
2018 was the centenary celebration for Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding. I kept hearing of people rediscovering this children’s book and re-creating it for a new generation of audiences. I had vague memories of reading it as a kid.

The work I made about it is a two-channel video piece called The Magic Pudding—Bánh Thánh. One of the channels is a footage of me, my mum and my aunty all make costumes to embody different characters in the story. The other channel is us all retelling parts of it.

I began the project by asking my mum and aunty if we could re-read the book together. Almost immediately, we saw that the story was centred around a group of male characters. Their bonds were established on machismo demonstrations of violence, scheming and mob-loyalty. As we looked further into it, my aunty pointed out that the original owner of the pudding was called a Mr “Curry-Rice” - who was quickly disposed of and left to drown. This racist aside completely made sense in the context of the White Australia Policy which was in full swing when the book was first published.

The magic pudding itself is an unending and perpetual resource. A resource that has the capacity to feed everyone – and the characters become fixated and paranoid almost to the point of self-destruction to keep this abundant resource for themselves. It’s a very colonial mentality. My mum pointed to the fact that like Australia, Vietnam, though much smaller geographically, has abundant natural resources, and was cursed by colonisation too. The narrative of her homeland is one saturated by waves and waves of occupations, colonisations and wars. The expressions of greed and corruption emerging from these violent disruptions was to her most telling in the inability of the Judge character to resist the pudding. In the end, the failure of the legal system meant that the three main characters were able to self-appoint each other as the rightful owners, even though they had stolen the pudding in the first place.

It was weird that I had such a hard time finding a critical contemporary interpretation of Norman Lindsay’s book. Yet through the lens of my immigrant family, the capricious and light-hearted way in which property ownership, racism and loyalty was enacted in the book was so clearly obvious to us. Unlike the various uncritical re-tellings of The Magic Pudding during its centenary, my mum, aunty and I felt that we could actually talk through concepts of sexism, colonisation and our own lived experiences through this quintessential Australian children’s book.

I guess to call myself “Australian” I need to at least have a basic understanding of the history of this country. I think it’s a personal responsibility to seek complex narratives and dialogues that drill more critically in to Australia’s history as an environmental, colonial, immigrant, global and Indigenous space.


 You’ve just started the Gertrude Studio Program—where you work from a studio at Gertrude Contemporary for two years. How do you think this will develop your practice?
The fact that it is a two-year studio program gives me more certainty and time to settle into Melbourne and build up new networks here. I’ve just moved down from Sydney, and it has made the move a lot smoother. It has been much easier to meet the arts community here, and I feel like I’m still connected to my people back in Sydney.

Having a physical space to go to has also meant that I’m able to develop some ideas that have been on hold for a while. I’m trying to work on things that aren’t so screen-based and family/friend dependent. But despite all these strategies, change takes a long time, and I still find myself resorting to established and lazy default art-making practices. I really have to deliberately re-situate myself in this space and take time to re-evaluate my practice. It’s a good thing I think.

What have you got planned for the future?
Completing my studies, and doing more non-art activities like joining the choir and doing adult swim classes. I know it seems a bit silly to learn to swim properly in Melbourne and not Sydney, given that your beaches are all so far away—but I don’t want my future to involve drowning!

Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Invest your time and energy in working with your network of excellent humans to collaborate and attempt projects that you may not feel confident to do independently. Make friends with people you have group exhibitions with, there are clear synergies that have brought you together and at the end of the day you’ve shared a space and some common experiences. Group exhibitions are the best!

 I’m not that great at managing my addiction to social media, but treat the socials as a form of productive procrastination. I use instagram as a form of connecting with peers, also use it to mark and inform people of what I am working on … funny teaser videos, shout outs, failed ideas etc. I also trawl through my feed and take screenshots of posts or ideas that catch my attention. Be prepared to have what you post be appropriated and fed into the image churn of other artists. I mainly use email and FB to let people know about events such as talks and exhibitions I’m doing.

Build a solid email list, spend time to organise your list into different groups of people—potential collaborators and peers, curators and arts administrators, academics and supervisors, and people with potential skills you lack. Learn to you use the bcc: function when you send mass emails. Separate, personalise and target your emails to these different groups.

I follow institutions to keep up with opportunities to apply for. Treat applications, as a form of fun procrastination, but keep them short and concise - that way you can whip them up pretty quickly and en-masse. I also like sending in random applications, especially to organisations and opportunities that I feel might not match my practice, like dance/theatre opportunities and festivals. It’s a way to open up networks, opportunities and get to work with people you otherwise would never have met.

Try to just be professional, respectful and kind. The majority of my opportunities have directly come from my friends talking about and advocating for my work. I make a deliberate effort to talk to curators and colleagues about the works of friends, peers and artists who I really respect. This makes studio visits less stressful and demonstrates you understand and are able to contextualise your work in a diverse and dynamic art ecology. 

If you need to be a jerk, do it sparingly and do it with the full knowledge that you can inadvertently cut-off an entire chain or network of people affiliated with the person who you had just sent a rude (and what you thought at the time) was a clever and sassy email to. I speak from the perspective of both sender and recipient.

Invest your time and energy in working with your network of excellent humans to collaborate and attempt projects that you may not feel confident to do independently.


 Who are you inspired by?
All the artists who are hustling to get their work and ideas out into the world, and even more respect for people who choose to spend countless hours organising, getting grants, creating safe spaces and building opportunities for artists and people like myself to keep making and presenting work.

I am also reminded of the work and labour of all the teachers, lecturers and supervisors at the National Art School, SCA and UNSW Art & Design who had given me so many opportunities to build my experience and confidence in exhibiting and teaching. People like Maryanne Coutts, Bill Wright, John Di Stefano, Nicholas Tsoutas, Veronica Tello, Jennifer Biddle and Di Smith: teachers and mentors are super inspirational.

What are you listening to?
I caught an episode of Credence Clear Water on “Hit Parade” and now I’m obsessed with all their hits that only made it to number two on the charts.

 What are you reading?
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in institutional Life by Sara Ahmed.

How do you practice self-care?
A reliable combination of chicken McNuggets, yoga apps, cheese, ice cream and thinking of ways to minimise actual artistic output whilst maximising the time I get to talk to other artists about making art.

Also taking time out of the arts.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
There are so many other artists doing amazing things that happen to also be Asian-Australian. It’s particularly reassuring to me that this community of artists is very supportive and active, they myself and others a supportive sanctuary and a means for critical reflection.

Being a male POC, and relatively white-adjacent gives me a particular level of fluidity and capacity to navigate the arts in my own particular way. I’m always aware of this. 

However, the best thing about being an Asian-Australian artist is that I speak a pan-Asian dialect with other Asian-Australians. It’s a great community! 

There are so many other artists doing amazing things that happen to also be Asian-Australian.


Those Monuments Don’t Know Us” is currently showing
at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre.
More information here.

Interview by Andy Butler
Photographs by Leah Jing

2, InterviewLeah McIntosh