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DINH Q. LÊ (1968–2024)

My first and, sadly, last interview with Dinh Q. Lê transpired in his studio in 2022, though we had known each other for years. The summer humidity was welling against the windowpanes as Dinh reclined in his wooden chair, enjoying a rare moment of respite in his creative domain. With his distinctive voice—slightly high-pitched, like a scratchy record—he told me about his childhood in Kiên Giang, Vietnam, his fateful voyage to American shores in 1978, his tumultuous education in California, and then his homecoming to Saigon in 1997. Gradually, his life unfurled in front of me, chapter by chapter, pixel by pixel, a photographic tapestry of memory, dedication, faith, and vision.

Dinh’s early life was colored by history. He recounted to me his experiences in the refugee camps in Thailand as a young teenage boy, how each family was allotted only a tiny square mat on which they ate, slept, quarreled, and made love. During those sweltering, sleepless nights, pressed tightly against other heaving bodies, Dinh would stare at the mosquito net above his head and let his imaginings of America run wild. Despite being an unwilling participant in the catastrophic theater of the Vietnam War, he was excluded from the discourse around it upon landing in America, as the US scrambled to salvage its postwar reputation with biased narratives. As a student in Walter Capps’s popular course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “The Vietnam War and American Religion,” Dinh openly complained that the course curriculum was prejudiced against the Vietnamese experience in its emphasis on the testimonies and experiences of US veterans. In 1989, he directed his frustration into an early series of posters that he plastered across the university campus. In these mostly black-and-white broadsides, journalistic American images of the war appear alongside statistics about casualties on the Vietnam side. 

Dinh was determined to stake a claim to the histories of the Vietnam War through his art. Uninterested in picking ideological sides, he was solely invested in unpacking the complex experiences of unnamed people who suffered through the war. This desire propelled him to return to Saigon in the late ’90s, to retrace his roots and uncover accounts that had been buried by Vietnam and overlooked in the US. This homecoming resulted in a number of storytelling projects, beginning with Damaged Gene, 1998, in which Dinh transformed his research on the horrendous repercussions of Agent Orange in Vietnam into a cabinet of grotesqueries, from cheerful figurines of conjoined twins to double-collared student uniforms and other articles of children’s clothing printed with logos of corporations that would eventually be sued by the Vietnamese government for their involvement in chemical warfare. 

I can still vividly recall the experience of installing an iteration of this series for the 2022 exhibition “Illuminated Curiosities” at the Nguyen Art Foundation in Ho Chi Minh City. As I unpacked each doll, ironed each uniform, and cradled each pacifier in my palms before placing them behind Plexiglas, I was on the verge of tears. My mind became flustered with questions about the fates of Agent Orange survivors and how they would describe their experiences of the war. Such was the power of Dinh’s haunting works: The objects’ combination of innocence and eeriness introduced me to another perspective on a community that I’d grown up hearing about constantly, yet that remained on the periphery of my historical consciousness. Dinh’s storytelling was political but not politicized: He interspersed harsh realities with a generous dose of poetics and sensitivity toward marginalized communities—people whose lives were quickly swept under the rug after the war ended.  

At the core of Dinh’s work was photography and its shape-shifting magic. Dinh was widely known for his practice of photo-weaving, inspired by Vietnamese grass mats, for which he cut found and archival images into strips and wove them into larger compositions. In the early series “Persistence of Memory,” 2000–2001, he combined scenes from Hollywood films depicting the war, such as Apocalypse Now (1979), with documentary images, while the recent “Cambodia Reamker” series, 2021–24, interweaves images of murals from the Cambodian Royal Palace in Phnom Penh with portraits of people imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge. However, Dinh’s multimedia assemblages were also heavily influenced by his profound understanding and intricate use of photography as a material and medium. For the installation Crossing the Farther Shore, 2014, Dinh sewed together hundreds of found photographs depicting life in South Vietnam before the war that had been abandoned by families when they migrated after 1975. The result—a group of lacy, fabric-like sheets that he suspended in the gallery to form monumental cubes—re-created the mosquito nets from his refugee-camp memories while simultaneously lampooning the Minimalist movement, which he deemed an escapist reaction by American artists during the height of the conflict. Floating like pixelated specters, these quilted objects reminded us not only of the untold stories of Vietnamese boat people but also of the fictionalizing capacity of the photographs. 

When I delivered a talk about this series at the Nat­ional Gallery Singapore in 2023, I was also tasked with giving a brief tour of the works, which were then on display as part of the survey exhibition “Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia.” As the guests navigated around the cubes, leaning in closer to observe the faces and decipher the scribbled notes behind the photographs, I snapped a photo and sent it to Dinh. “I am initiating people into your temple, anh oi,” I joked, using the Vietnamese term for older brother. He laughed, commenting that I was his high priestess. We continued chatting as the works murmured their tales into the guests’ attentive ears. 

To many outside Vietnam, Dinh Q. Lê was simply a magnificent artist whose works struck a critical chord amid the narratives of the Vietnam War. But to us in Saigon, particularly the artists, writers, and art workers who became aware of unresolved political conflict in Vietnam thanks to his art, Dinh was a mentor, a trailblazer, a visionary, and a great friend. As a cofounder of Sàn Art, a platform that has invigorated contemporary art in Vietnam and Southeast Asia since 2007, Dinh remained steadfast in his commitment to nurturing young Vietnamese artists through exhibitions, residencies, and educational workshops. His wish was for Sàn Art to become not only a reflective space for local artists but a bridge connecting them to the arena of global art. “The world needs to know about them,” he exclaimed. Ever generous with his time and rigorous in his feedback, Dinh has paved the way for many now-famous Vietnamese artists. Words cannot describe our collective gratitude. 

In my last memory of Dinh, some three months before his untimely passing, he appears not as an artist but as a makeshift dealer—Sàn Art had a booth at the art fair S.E.A. Focus 2024, in Singapore, and was presenting a group of novice artists from Vietnam. Watching Dinh excitedly explain these previously unknown artists and their works to collectors, curators, and institution directors—even though he complained later to me that his voice was gone after the vernissage!––I could not help but feel an affectionate well of admiration for this dedicated man. One of my greatest regrets in life was that we did not have lunch in Singapore. Alas, “what if” questions are cheap. 

When he came back to Vietnam more than twenty years ago, Dinh made a promise to uplift Vietnam and its artists, and he was faithful to that promise until the end. The last image that he posted on his Facebook profile was of his barely finished studio, looking out to the ocean in his hometown in the Mekong Delta. The sky was vast and the water an unblemished navy blue. The ocean, which brought him to foreign shores decades ago, now carries him to his final station. Wherever you are, Anh Dinh, may peace be with you. Here is to your next adventure!