The Vietnamese language does not have a word for feminism.
But the country did and does have feminists, including Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, a revolutionary leader of the Indochinese Communist Party in the 1930s. Her elusive figure lurks everywhere and nowhere in “To Name It is to See It,” a solo exhibition by Huong Ngo upstairs at the DePaul Art Museum.
Downstairs is “Vessels of Genealogies,” a show by Firelei Baez. Baez has covered the gallery walls in fabulously lush, obsessively intricate drawings of dark women with cascades of living hair, the ghostly descendants of African, Latina and Caribbean great-great-grandmothers and goddesses.
This is what feminist art looks like today. It’s called “intersectional” and it attends to the ways in which not just gender but also race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, language, class and sexuality overlap to inform a woman’s identity and her experience in the world. Minh Khai was killed by a French firing squad in 1941 not because she was a woman but because she was a bourgeois Vietnamese woman deeply involved in an anti-colonial revolution. Marie Laveau, a vodou practitioner and madam living in antebellum New Orleans, was obliged by state law to tie her hair up in a tignon headscarf not because she was a woman but because she was a free woman of color.
As befits a mode of feminism built on the recognition of differences, Ngo and Baez take radically dissimilar approaches to these respective histories. Upstairs is rigorous conceptualism realized via a hundred years worth of old and new technologies; downstairs is a remarkable studio practice grounded in pattern and decoration, portraiture and the precedence of practitioners like Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Julie Mehretu.
Baez depicts Laveau as a vision of abundance, defined by the billowing kinks of her hair, which fill the 61/2 -foot-tall gouache and graphite picture to its wavy edges. She smiles out ebulliently from amid those curls, which cannot be suppressed by any headscarf and instead seem to contain the world: decorative patterns, hair picks, cornrows, feathery plants, breeze walls. Nearby, other larger-than-life-size women feature equally luxuriant tresses, teeming with syncretic mixtures of colorful birds, fireworks, henna designs, snakes, chains, panthers, clenched fists and figures with batons.
Baez, who was born in 1981 in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and a father of Haitian descent, then raised in Miami from age 9, takes her own hairstyles as motif in the caustic “Can I Pass? Introducing the Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of July.” To create the series, which references pseudoscientific tests of blackness, Baez colored her ever-changing silhouette in light brown each day for a month, leaving only her eyes glaring out uncannily. Their righteous anger, packed tight into small panels, balances out the unrestrained gorgeousness of her monumental paintings.
In a transfixing second cluster of small works hair goes from being a recognizably cultural and historical element to a surrealistically weird one. Baez’s collage drawings, executed on pages from deaccessioned library books, feature engravings of dead white men like Andrew Jackson, their faces covered in permanents and plaits. Fires rage overtop architectural renderings, green miasmas spread unstoppably across maps and everywhere bodacious women, their skin richly patterned, bear witness to the witty defacement.
Meanwhile, for “In Passing,” Ngo made a version of the Western-style shirt that Minh Khai was wearing when she was arrested, complete with hidden pockets filled with plans for a future uprising. In a twist, the shirt’s transparent fabric is printed with tropical images from a mural in the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris. The museum, which originally was intended to honor France’s colonial empire but has come full circle, also provides the material for a second garment, a Mandarin-style shirt whose palm leaves camouflage perfectly against a photographic reproduction of the wall painting — just as Minh Khai used various aliases and disguises to evade authorities.
Despite having delved into archives in Vietnam and France, Ngo, whose Vietnamese-Chinese family took refuge in the U.S. a few months after she was born in 1979, can’t fix the gaps in the deplorably lacking historical record of Minh Khai. Instead she makes them manifest, reproducing French translations of intercepted letters by laser-cutting them into onionskin paper. The typescript words appear as negative space against a background of teak, a wood introduced to Vietnam by the French at the turn of the last century. A series of all-white puckered drawings bear invisible marks painted with a brush dipped in boiled-rice water, a popular espionage technique of the time. (Displayed adjacent is the iodine solution that makes such transcriptions visible.) An exhibition case filled with common items that would have been used by anti-colonial organizers for coded communication includes, in addition to a scarf and a kitchen strainer, a 3-D-printed buffalo horn, since the original proved inaccessible.
Other gaps can be filled: Absent an official Vietnamese translation for “feminism,” Ngo asked a range of artists and scholars to provide their own. The results are published in a voluble broadsheet with a masthead in Danh Da, a typeface created with Ho Chi Minh City designer Giang Nguyen to attend to the dearth of digital fonts for Vietnamese. The translation of Danh Da is an unprintable adjective beginning with the letter “b,” used to refer to malicious behavior, especially when committed by a woman. For that, at least, there’s a word in Vietnamese.
“Firelei Baez: Vessels of Genealogies” and “Huong Ngo: To Name It is to See It” run through Aug. 6 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-325-7506, museums.depaul.edu.