Space Force Civilian: Madam Nhu
This painting is a portrait of Madame Nhu, also known as the “Dragon Lady.” She was the sister-in-law of South Vietnam’s last president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Since the president was a bachelor, she was considered the First Lady of South Vietnam. Madame Nhu was notorious for her harsh commentary on the US, calling America “false brothers.”
This portrait is part of a series of paintings by the artist, each depicting one of the four people she would send into space on a civilian mission. These portraits are part of Nguyen’s exploration of modern-day space travel. They are also influenced by her recent research into Forest City—a man-made, tropical, plant-covered, tax-free Malaysian island located in the Singapore Strait between Malaysia and Singapore. When Nguyen visited the island in 2019, a salesperson lauded the sustainable city as a wonderful and luxurious place to raise kids, receive great medicare care and retire as there was “no climate change” in this utopia. After the trip, Nguyen began to imagine Forest City as an aspirational and utopian nation with a space force.
Nguyen created a national flag for the island for these paintings. Throughout the four portraits, viewers will see a flag spread across the composition. The flag features twelve alternating green and blue horizontal stripes which represent unchanging land and water over the twelve hours of a day. In the center of the flag is a big white circle, which represents a perfect sun—a source of light and truth. Nguyen uses this flag by placing it across a subject or weaving it through foliage, where the various symbols—representing sun, water and land—can move and suggest new meaning. These four portraits suggest that while the flag aspires for human perfection, humans and culture constantly agitate this pursuit. As the flag moves around, viewers witness a distortion of the circular sun—while the stripes that depict unmoving land and water are in constant motion.
Tammy Nguyen is a multimedia artist whose work encompasses painting, drawing, printmaking and book making. The artist’s work explores the intersection of geopolitical realities with fiction, addressing lesser-known histories through a blend of myth and visual narrative. Nguyen is also the founder of Passenger Pigeon Press, an independent press that joins the work of scientists, journalists, creative writers and artists to create politically nuanced and cross-disciplinary projects.
Tammy Nguyen was born in San Francisco, California. The artist received an MFA from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in 2013 and a BFA from Cooper Union in New York City in 2007. Also in 2007, Nguyen received a Fulbright scholarship to study lacquer painting in Vietnam. After the scholarship ended, the artist remained in Vietnam to work with a ceramics company for three years.
Nguyen’s work was included in the Greater New York show at MoMA’s PS1 in 2021.
Exhibitions that have included Nguyen’s work have taken place at: Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, New York; the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City; The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City.
Nguyen was awarded the Van Lier Fellowship at Wave Hill in 2014 and a NYFA Fellowship in painting in 2021.
Nguyen’s work is included in the collections of: Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the MIT Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington; the Walker Art Center Library in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York City; among others.
Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Art at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.