Artist's Book: Hoàng Thị Như Hảo
Going back through my notes, I see that the photo of your mother is to be read
universally. ‘It must go beyond what is personal’, you said. ‘The work may well be
about my Vietnamese mother, yes, it is her portrait. Or rather, no, it’s the passport
photo from her ID card, that is important.’
I can barely recall the conversation from my scribbled notes. About how you set to
work with laboratory assistants to develop an acid enabling you to separate the
colours of a negative. About brushed stainless steel. Confrontation mirrors,
reinforced glass. It was a nice intense conversation, full of technology and full of
black holes. ‘Black holes confront us with the greatest challenge in physics: how to
reconcile the largest structures of the universe with the smallest structures.’1 The
universal and the personal. So much scientific research in order to give the love for
your mother a right to exist – flashed through my mind. And at that time I did not
yet realise how special your love is.
I saw the work Nude in the living room of its brand new owner, Joep van Lieshout.
There she was again: your mother. Three differently tinted prints of the same
passport photo. A parting in her hair. Her gaze, modest and shy. Infinitely gentle.
Elusive. I look at her, but she is looking just past me with her eyes raised slightly
In the yellow print, the face has almost disappeared into the paper. In the red
version, the hair frames the young face, which lights up like a narrow heart-
shape. The brown version is readable as a black and white photo. The blocks of
colour lie under the three upright portraits, brown, red and yellow, as a response
to that sweet gentle face. As if the colours have leaked downwards and have
been caught there by three equally sized pieces of paper. They marble the sheet.
Sometimes her name: Hoàng Thi Nhu Hao
Little by little, the story emerges, the story about you and her. About how your
mother came to the Netherlands as a boat refugee and met your father on that
The programme Andere tijden (Different times) reports on the rescue of an over-
crowded boat like that one with Vietnamese refugees.2 The splashing water around
the boat turned out to be caused not by people swimming but by the sharks that
were swarming around it. The refugees floated around for days without food or
drink. Parents gave their children a burial at sea. A Dutch ship took them on board.
‘I can still remember that moment very clearly. There was a strange smell coming
from that boat; I’ve never smelt that odour again but I have the feeling that I smelt
death then,’ the captain relates.
The smell of perfume becomes visual in your hands. You immerse a roll of black
and white film in boiling water and this produces a blue print. Conversely, it appears
that the most horrifying moments are often stored as a sensory experience. All that
a conductor remembers of the car accident in which he lost his wife is their
daughter’s scream. That intensity became the yardstick for his music. Perhaps
those images are too heavy for the eyes so they let them go. Falling images.
Smell is a powerful force, perfume can intoxicate, tempt, repel, obscure. The
streets of Vietnam smell of jasmine, of the faintly sweetish smell of the river3 but
no exotic fragrance can drown out the smell of the war.
The 10-part documentary The Vietnam War contains an unparalleled amount of
found footage. After two episodes of the series I have to take a break. Not only
because of all those mutilated bodies, the atrocities that must have taken place
beforehand, but above all the realisation that there was no escape possible, not
from the incessant bombardments, not from the fluctuation of the concepts of
good and evil and the deadly consequences. 8 more episodes to go. 3,387,148
In April ’75 the fall (or the liberation?) of Saigon marked the end of the war.
The conflict continued, about who was right, who was wrong, re-education camps,
brutalities, a civil war full of booby-traps. Your mother grew up in this torn-apart
country. We can only surmise what her eyes saw. Or the smell from which she can
And then you are there.
Simone. Your name means listening or hearing. What a wonderful name for an
artist. You are true to your name because there is a beautiful sense of compassion
floating among all those chemicals. You grew up without many photos being taken,
first in your mother’s arms, later in foster families. But without pictures to look
back into the past.
The writer Dubravka Ugresic divides refugees into two categories: those who have
photos and those who do not. The photos are the facts of life of a vanished exist-
ence. And even though the photos only show the cherished moments of life, the
wider universe filters through them. If you read carefully, an image of a period in time comes to the fore, of peace, of war, poverty, a part of the world. Photos tell so
much more than just the life of the main character. Ugresic describes the existence
as a refugee as a dreamlike state in which fragments of the past come and go.
Without the photos that bring the memories to the surface or to which your
memories willingly conform, the past is a blank sheet of paper. Without something
to cling onto, the memories withdraw into their own uncertainties. The photos
serve as punctuation for the memory; they make it possible to read it like a story
that we weave around it afterwards.
While I am writing this text, my list of questions grows: when did you visit Vietnam
as a child together with your mother? An artist in residency in Ho Chi Minh City. But
then I read the following sentence by Ugresic:
‘One more thing: the question as to whether this novel is autobiographical might at
some hypothetical moment be of concern to the police but not to the reader.’ There
is absolutely no need to sift through your past; fragments are enough and the work
is a touchstone. Those are the facts.
In our second conversation, you tell the story of you and your mother. About how
she was not able to look after you. And how you received four photos after her
death, including the one from her ID card. There she was, your mother. You looked
at the photos again and again. A country and an era hover behind her image; she is
your mother but at the same time so much more.
You notice that her skin tone takes on strange colours, sometimes even a dark spot,
and you set out to investigate.
It turns out, a very sobering thought, that the first colour films were designed to
portray white skin. The coloured dots of the film gravitate towards the colours red,
green and blue, and this means that the colours needed to portray a different skin
colour are less likely to appear. And of those three thin emulsion layers that
determine the colour, the red-sensitive layer is at the bottom. Yellow, brown and
red. An explanation that is consistent with a chemical formula. But at the same
time, I think about the French who colonised Vietnam a century ago, who regarded
the Vietnamese as an inferior race, and who, with their refusal give up the colony,
form the origin of the Vietnam War. They were white, just like the Americans who
took over the war.
As a hard-core scientist, you dive into the chemical formulae. Unexposed rolls of
film go into an acid bath so that the colours of the emulsion layer come to the top and are then separated again using another procedure. The image of your mother
rises up out of the colour baths, from the colours yellow, brown and red. Unmistak-
Using these processes, you make large prints of the difficult colours brown, red and
yellow as an act of reparation for everyone whose skin is not white.
Then you send me a number of documents. About securing your place with the
foster family, about your name change, and a death certificate for your mother. In
the latter document I read the incomprehensible line: ‘Approved the deletion of 21
words and 3 punctuation marks’. I check — it is correct.
The institutions that noted this so precisely could do nothing for her, they were
unable to make contact with her.
Authorities. ‘Why was there no one who simply rang her doorbell?’ you wonder.
When you were 18, you already very much wanted to have your own name again,
but it was not that simple. It was not until you were 31, and after a court
case, that you were called Hoàng again. Yes, I understand that, why you can’t
belong, with all your individuality. Why that adjustment. Being Vietnamese and
having a name like Klomp (wooden shoe) is an uneasy combination.
‘There is a certain expectation, an assumption, that anger dominates my life, that I
am angry with my mother. But I am my mother’s daughter.’
Yes, fortunately you are her daughter, standing up for her. ‘Immense sadness lies
behind her choice. That she must have been so lonely, despite my being there. I
was actually never with her, even though I was there. Because it takes a lot of
courage, knowing that your daughter is going on with her life without you. I felt that
there was love, a form of devotion, she gave love. I felt it.’
I find it intensely moving. In the Netherlands, therapists teach children to distance
themselves, to be angry, to stand up for themselves, but do we teach love? Or does
love lie in those big abstract sheets of paper, and can we absorb some of it by
‘Night sensitivity’ is your latest project. Somewhere beyond the Atlas Mountains,
towards the Algerian border, is the place where the world is darkest; the darkness
is at its most intense just before the sun rises.
The night, the negative of seeing, that shrouds who we are; you make images
emerge from that dark night. Just as our memory can creep out from the darkness
of what has been forgotten, like a softly whimpering little animal. By developing the
negatives lovingly and with miraculous chemicals, an image is created, not a realistic image but a beautifully scented image of a flower. That is love. Those are
the arms that embrace your mother.
‘I still remember that, when we first met, you asked me whether this work is an ode
to my mother. We are now somewhat further in the process and I think more and
more that it is an ode to the mother, not per se my mother. An ode to the origin, the
beginning, the source.’
The more we talk, the better I understand that it is without doubt also an ode to
Wherever she is, your love will reach her. And we can feel it – with you.
1 Robbert Dijkgraaf, 11 April 2019, The black hole is the atom of the 21st century
2 VPRO, Andere tijden (Different times), 25 May 2004 (1979)
3 Carlijn Visser, Hoge bomen in Hanoi (Tall trees in Hanoi), 2017
4 Nrc, 4 April 1995, Death toll in Vietnam War higher than expected