TAC AIR 11 resident Cong-Tam Nguyen (pronouns: they/them/he/him) came to the program with the goal of continuing their textile explorations and moving to New York City. But why the Textile Arts Center specifically? The 2019 Rhode School of Design graduate consulted fellow RISD alum and TAC AIR 10 resident Erin Palumbo, who whole-heartedly recommended TAC. Tam had been aware of TAC through a 2017 internship with artist Kenya Robinson and mentions at RISD, but Erin’s words gave them that final push.
While New York city is a natural draw for many artists, Tam had an additional reason to explore beyond their native Maryland: building community. For Tam, community and family are central to the themes and content of their work. The artist, whose family members come from Laos and Vietnam, said the following in our July 2020 Zoom call:
“Yes, I treasure my ties to my family and to Southeast Asian American communities and have such a prideful respect for their [refugee] histories….They’ve been through a lot in recent decades following the Vietnam War, but there’s so much more to them than that, spanning from ancient history to now. I definitely want to...acknowledge that and have my work be a way of loving and caring for them. But I’m also a queer person, which is important to the ways that I love and care for others as well.”
“I definitely want to...acknowledge [my family's refugee history] and have my work be a way of loving and caring for them. But I’m also a queer person, which is important to the ways that I love and care for others as well.”
They mentioned how queerness has played a role in the ways that they navigate their relationship with their family. “While it has been difficult at times, the coexistence of my queerness and my family is so powerful. I think my understanding of that fact has strengthened the love that I have for my family, as well as the love I have for myself as someone who is queer.” Being in New York City allows for art-making while still maintaining familial relationships and building new community relationships as a queer person.
Thanks to a family friend, Tam moved into a Brooklyn apartment at a reduced rate in time for TAC AIR. They emphasized the importance for them to minimize their contributions to New York City’s gentrification.
“I think a lot about the impact that I have on New York and gentrification, and would encourage other artists to do the same,” they said. “Finding this apartment through a family friend made me feel better about my placement here. I am working on how to get involved with the community [here] and TAC was one of those ways for me.”
“I think a lot about the impact that I have on New York and gentrification, and would encourage other artists to do the same.”
Tam credits their family for encouraging their artwork since early childhood. The drawing bug bit Tam at a young age and by high school, they graduated to large-scale charcoal drawings. When they began at RISD, they did not study drawing because there was no drawing department. Painting did not seem like the right fit either. “The tradition of oil painting and the contemporary culture of painting…did not resonate with me,” they said. But working with objects did.
Tam’s personal TAC AIR project stemmed back to undergraduate work, which explored life experiences and family lore. Each TAC AIR resident is encouraged to develop a personal project to be shown in whole or part at the residents’ group exhibition, which typically takes place in the fall. For their RISD thesis, Tam assumed the role of a curator at the fictional Museum of Contemporary Vietnamese America (MOCVA). This persona was “an amalgamation of myself and some of my family members.” For the TAC AIR project, Tam created a fictional clothing store in a “Chinatown setting,” with an entire merchandise line. They did much of the handiwork themselves, but also outsourced labor during quarantine, as a nod to mass production practices common in retail and tourism. They used some of their own childhood experiences helping out in their grandmother’s convenience store to inform the shop owner character (to be played by Tam). At the eventual TAC AIR fall exhibition, Tam plans to respond to other residents’ work, as well as the space itself. The modular nature of the shop’s components allow for reconfigurations, including scaling up or down.
“The presence of fabrics or textiles is more important to my current work than the process at this point.”
Through TAC AIR, Tam said, “I learned that it’s not necessarily about the process of working through the material but incorporating textiles into my work in some way or another. The presence of fabrics or textiles is more important to my current work than the process at this point.”
The residency has also allowed for more reflection on balancing personal religious rituals with a second-generation American upbringing, and the experience of seeing Vietnam and Laos through the lens of white American vacation culture. The fictional shop references “this tropical getaway through the use of Google images” (in part because they have never been to their ancestral countries), queer love, and Buddhism.
“My relationship with my family is entirely defined by my queerness and my queerness is entirely defined by my family. It’s a constant back and forth with different forms of love in my life, regardless of the work itself.”
“To describe my practice and not necessarily this [project] specifically, I would say it’s a balance between familial love and romantic queer love,” said Tam. “What it’s like to experience love as a queer person…My relationship with my family is entirely defined by my queerness and my queerness is entirely defined by my family. It’s a constant back and forth with different forms of love in my life, regardless of the work itself.”
Tam's work was featured in the Subtle Speaks, TAC AIR 11 Final Exhibition (September 19-28, 2020). Check the online exhibition to see more from this artist.