House Marseilles presents the first museum exhibition of the French-Vietnamese artist Nhu Xuan Hua (1989, Paris), a remarkable new talent. Hua has made a name for herself as a photographer for magazines such as Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Dazed Beauty, DANSK and TIME Magazine and has worked on commissions for major fashion brands such as Kenzo, Maison Margiela, Dior and Levi’s. Still, fashion photography is just one of her talents. The exhibition Hug of a swan shows the diversity of her artistic output, which also takes the form of installations and autonomous works inspired by family photos. The exhibition shows that these categories are inseparable; All of Hua’s creations are inspired by personal and shared memories.
After the Vietnam War (1955–1975), Nhu Xuan Hua’s family fled to Belgium and France, and Hua was subsequently born in a suburb of Paris. As a second-generation migrant, she grew up between two cultures. After leaving her parents’ home, she felt an increasing separation from her roots. She asked her relatives about her past, hoping to fill that gap and learn more about herself. The exhibition at Huis Marseille is effectively Hua’s artistic response to this research, presented in atmospheric installations of altars with associative artifacts.
Family history as the basis of a work
When Hua Hua first visited Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam as an adult in 2016 and 2017, she felt both physically and spiritually closer to her family history. It was the starting point for the series Tropism, Consequences of a Displaced Memory, which runs like a red thread through the exhibition. Images from Hua’s family archive were digitally manipulated using an algorithm in such a way that people or their surroundings dissolve into abstract lines and colors without ever completely disappearing. What at first glance appears like an altered present is actually a dialogue with the past and a representation of the ongoing movement of memories that change and disappear over time. “What I like about my culture is that we value the past. It manifests itself, for example, in photographing everything obsessively, because by capturing and repeating you imprint the memory and open access to remembering and remembering,” she says.
Hua derived the title of her series of Tropismes from Nathalie Sarraute, a 1957 book that gave birth to the term nouveau roman. With the word tropism, both Sarraute and Hua refer to imperceptible movements and the tiny feelings of attraction or repulsion that reside in the subconscious. These stirrings of the soul are triggered by instinctive associations or perhaps by an inherited memory. Some of the photographs in the Tropism series were taken before Hua was born, but she feels that past lives on inside her. “In the archive photos I see patterns that unconsciously repeat themselves in my own life. They evoke strong emotions, although I have never experienced them personally.”
The exhibition mixes commission and autonomous work. It shows how closely connected these seemingly separate forms of photography are. Hua draws her inspiration for both from the same ingredients. Her fashion work can also be viewed as a form of tropism; Image details relate to personal memories and central figures in Hua’s life. Oysters and oyster shells help her to remember moments with her father – how as a child she watched her father paint in the garage, used the oyster shell as a palette or how they liked to eat oysters together on New Year’s Eve.
Hua captures such personal references in hyper-stylized images. With a passionate pursuit of perfection—an urge to prove herself to her parents, who questioned her career choices—Hua pays attention to every little detail. The language barrier with her deaf father, who only communicates in Vietnamese or French sign language, has translated into a greater focus on body language. This creates exciting compositions that resonate. For good reason, Hua sees herself first and foremost as a storyteller.
Especially for this exhibition, Hua has developed installations in which she can show her work. They are in the form of four altars, with a symmetry and exuberance that reflects the Vietnamese visual penchant for “more is better”. These installations are also full of personal associations and attributes; For example, potted geraniums are physically present, but they also often appear in the background of their family photos. Other objects are a kind of paraphernalia of a particular encounter or experience: “My favorite Disney film is Belle and the Beast, where every object is alive and has a soul and a consciousness. That’s why I’m such a treasure keeper: objects carry memories.”
Tables also play an important role. They are an invitation to sit down, reflect or engage in conversation with other visitors, but also indicate that eating together – certainly in Vietnamese culture – is an expression of love. While Hua missed physical displays of love like hugs and cuddles in her family, she has regained that love in food culture: eating with friends or appreciating food.
The hug of a swan
Just as oysters refer to her father and tangerines to her mother, the swan in Hug of a swan represents the artist herself. When Hua moved to London, she often suggested that people use the English word “swan” to express themselves to pronounce their name correctly. “It reflects my lifelong struggle with my identity: How can you recognize yourself when your name, the most basic way of identifying yourself, is mispronounced by others?”
Hug of a swan immerses visitors in colorful installations and takes them to the roots of Hua’s world. At the same time, the exhibition is an examination of her own past for the artist. Accordingly, the title is a distant allusion to the “swan song” – the song that heralds a conclusion. An acceptance of ambivalent feelings about the past that opens up the possibility of a new project for Hua.
“A slap on the cheek for a memory battle against oblivion
Disclosing all of this, I am speaking to my father and holding my mother’s hand
With the myriad languages I was given to speak
Whether loud or silent
Silent most of the time.”
Nhu Xuan Hua
A book on Hua’s tropism series will accompany the exhibition and is available in the museum shop.
While Nhu Xuan Hua (1989, Paris) was in the admissions process for the art academy in Paris, she studied art history at the University of Paris for a year and then film for another year. In 2011 she completed the photography course at the Auguste Renoir Art Academy in Paris and a year later moved to London, where she now lives and works for the biggest fashion companies. One of her most famous shoots was the cover of TIME Magazine’s Next Generation Leaders theme in 2018, for which Hua photographed K-pop band BTS.
Nhu Xuan Hua: Embracing a Swan
Until December 4thth2022
1016 EK Amsterdam, Netherlands