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Dinh Q. Lê, Who Tended the Wounds of Post-War Vietnam, Dies at 56

Dinh Q. Lê, a multi-media artist whose work challenged global perceptions as well as internal censorship and exploitation in southern Vietnam, passed away of a stroke on April 6 in Ho Chi Minh City at 56 years old, according to a Facebook announcement by his family. 

Though he fled Vietnam as a child in the wake of the “American War,” as it’s referred to there, the nation never left his thinking. Informed by his identities as an immigrant in the United States and a gay man, Lê’s work weaves together the irresolvable themes of identity and changeability, rooted in memory, documentation, and lived experiences in Vietnam. “His passion radiated through his artwork and reached people far and wide,” the artist’s sister, Lily Cao, wrote in her Facebook tribute. 

The artist was born Lê Quang Đỉnh in the southern Vietnamese town of Hà Tiên in 1968. When war broke out between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1978 and sent the Khmer Rouge into his bordering hometown, his family sought refuge in Thailand and then Los Angeles, where he was raised by his mother alongside six siblings. Lê received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1989, and a Master’s of Fine Arts from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1992. Four years later, he moved back to Vietnam to settle in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2021, Lê regained his Vietnamese citizenship. 

Lê first broke through in the mainstream art world with his 1999 work “Mot Coi Di Ve,” which borrows its title from the popular Vietnamese song that fittingly translates as “Spending One’s Life Trying to Return Home.” In the massive quilt-like work, he wove thousands of diasporic family photographs, images of those orphaned and displaced by the war, and written recollections into a loose grid that rippled with gaps, echoing the lacunae of memory and the historical record. 

“Mot Coi Di Ve” was a precursor to Lê’s characteristic “photographic weavings” — the technique for which he is perhaps best known and would go on to create throughout his career. These glossy tapestries recall Vietnamese grass-mat weaving, an art form he learned in childhood from his aunt, through layered C-Type prints forming mesmerizing compositions sealed at the edges with linen tape. 

Lê was also a noted photographer and video artist. In the three-channel film “The Farmers and the Helicopters” (2006) made in collaboration with Hai Quoc Tran, Le Van Danh, Phu-Nam Thuc Ha, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Lê spliced together clips from films made in the United States during the American War with personal testimonials and recollections from Vietnamese people who experienced the conflict firsthand. It was accompanied by a helicopter hand-built from scrap parts by Tran, a self-taught mechanic, and Le, a farmer. 

Beyond his own work, Lê also cultivated, nurtured, and memorialized Vietnamese art as an avid collector. In 2007, he co-founded Sàn Art, an art organization and incubator for experimental Vietnamese art in Ho Chi Minh City that includes a library and educational center, alongside Nguyen, Ha, and artist Tiffany Chung. He curated a 2018 solo show of works by Vietnamese ceramicist and poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh titled Guerrilla Tactics at MoT+++ artists’ space, organized with Sàn Art. 

Tributes to the artist online included an Instagram post by Saigon’s Galerie Baq. “Dinh’s generosity and guidance have nurtured countless talents, shaping the future of Vietnamese art,” the gallery wrote. “As we mourn his loss, let us celebrate his legacy and the enduring impact he has had on all who knew him.” 

In a 2013 interview with Vietnam–based curator Zoe Butt, who previously worked at Sàn Art, Lê explained the enduring importance of his home country on his sense of self and community. “If you know a history, you own it,” Lê said. “An individual with no knowledge of his or her history is an individual without an identity.” His work embodies this story of reclamation, staking a historical archive for the next generation of artists to weave into their own sense of identity, both individual and collective.