Nicole Won Hee Maloof and Tammy Nguyen’s two-woman exhibition, One Blue Eye, Two Servings, weaves fictional and biographical references to the banana into a complex socio-cultural matrix. Maloof’s video, “What color is a banana?” (2017) cleverly considers the multi-dimensional nature of this fruit, an ostensibly benign object of nutrition, and a food whose production process requires human intervention and has been detrimental to its laborers. Simultaneously exploring theories around sight, color, race, and language, the artist also analyzes the term banana as a racially-charged slur for Asian Americans. Her meticulous etchings serve as stills, freezing the moving image to create moments of pause amongst a dense, engrossing web of political and ontological associations. Nguyen’s paintings, which take Book 9 of “The Odyssey” as their departure point, juxtapose Maloof’s network of thinking, expanding the well-known story’s narrative into personal and contemporary terrain. Her paintings consider the banana as a weapon and a tool of seduction, incorporating references ranging from America’s military presence in Vietnam to the chaos of natural disasters in the Global South. Painted on stretched paper instead of canvas, Nguyen’s works are formal and conceptual experiments into flatness and opacity — echoing the thick humidity of the environments she represents and the colonial power structures that have attempted cultural erasure there. Inspired by poet and critic John Yau’s ability to complicate tropes of language and painting as they relate to race and American culture, the artists invited him to engage in the following conversation.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Maloof, Nguyen and Yau moderated by Alison Karasyk. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition One Blue Eye, Two Servings.
Alison Karasyk: I want to begin by asking Tammy and Nicole to speak about how their dialogue that led to this show started, and their process of co-thinking.
Nicole Maloof: I initiated the conversation by bringing the video that’s showing here to Karen, who runs this space. And she got us in touch pretty quickly thereafter. And we met, and I forget where the timeline of the ideas for your paintings came into mind?
Tammy Nguyen: I remember first seeing your video, I think at an event here. And Karen was like, “And I know you’ve done something with a banana before?” And I was like, “How did you know?” She said, “Oh, well, I saw it on Instagram.” The series she was referencing was How to Breathe in Selected Tropics, which was a four-part artist book that I made that was shown at SAIC in Chicago. It included the four chapters of Banana, Hog, Cyclops, and Fans. Fans for helicopters and hogs for pork and fat and delicious things that come out of the tropics. And politicians. And bananas, I was thinking about bananas as being guns and bananas as being phalluses and bananas as also being nutrients.
John Yau: And the racial thing.
TN: And the racial thing, too, the racial slur of being called a banana.
NM: It’s explained in the video.
TN: And so that’s where this all started. From then onward, I continued to think about what that artist book was about, and then developed these paintings.
NM: And then the semester ended and I finally had some free time, and one thing about the video that people — I don't know who’s seen it yet in this room — but it’s a lot of information. It’s sort of like a quick series of diagrams in 13 minutes and there’s sort of no break. And I’ve had friends tell me that they had to watch it multiple times, and they had wished that there could be some moment of pause to kind of contemplate the connections that are being made. So I decided to take the form of etching, also knowing that Tammy’s a printmaker, too. And so I decided to make some works on paper to provide a moment to sit with the relationships in the video. So through printmaking, etching, and engraving specifically, taking what used to be the way in which paintings would proliferate, before you had the internet and photographic means with which to get images out to a wide group of people, across continents.
But video has the proliferation ability within the fabric of its medium. And so I thought it would be kind of cool to subvert that instead, taking video stills, turning them into etchings, to deal more with the slowing down of time. And so those got made in the summer and I sent Tammy some pictures of them. And then things just kept going on their own -- our studio making, our art making and our respective studio practices, but we had this contact over time, but minimally. So it’s kind of amazing how everything came into being.
I think the things that we’re concerned with, they have a relationship to one another, but we didn’t want our frameworks to get too intertwined in an artificial way. We knew that there was enough connections between our concerns around content that we just trusted that the making process would lend itself to connections being made organically.
JY: I have a question for the both of you – you were talking about the in-between and about not having a kind of pure state in a way that’s reflected in your mediums. And you were talking about how some artists can only be seen politically and some can be seen only normally and that both of you are interested in how to bring these together and obviously through different mediums, so it’s not like this is the medium that works best. So can you talk about that?
TN: Yeah, in-between spaces.
JY: We were talking about that in the taxi
TN: Yeah, about your poems and in-between spaces. I think that in-between spaces, I guess the way that I’ve been thinking about them-
JY: Diasporic spaces, right?
TN: The term that I keep thinking about a lot in my studio these days is confusion, confusion versus curiosity and when I think about the diasporic space and the in-between space, I think about it as a space that’s constantly vibrating with confusion. You can choose to end the confusion by closing the blinds and just going to sleep and you know and that’s fine, but then you can also push forward and the vibration just gets louder and louder and louder as you constantly pursue these very complicated and nuanced spaces of culture and thought and politics and history. When I think about it in regards to painting I’m always trying to think of images that are confident but that simultaneously cancel each other out in terms of the selection of images. So for example, the painting in the back that has “nobody” written across, there is the hand of another feeding the upside down woman with bananas and you can’t help but not think that it’s forced. But at the same time, the woman is eating the banana, and so that type of collision is the kind that I really aspire towards, something pleasurable yet also a little oppressive happening at the same time.
NM: Yeah, that’s sort of the point of the video. You take an object that seems really familiar and going through the different ways in which, maybe we don’t know things that we find to be familiar and easy and simple. And maybe this is going back to the idea of medium. I do think now within the art world it’s a little more acceptable to say I’m an interdisciplinary artist, you’re not just a painter you’re not just a sculptor you’re not just a print maker. People are starting to be ok with artists being many things, but I still think sometimes there is this desire to be defined by one simple thing, and I think that that’s a really dangerous thing to do, also in terms of how we consider our politics right now. You’re either one thing or another and that you can’t go across multiple categories. I think the oversimplification of objects, our understanding of the world, and one another, has great implication for how this world is organized, beyond the scope of art. And so to me, it makes sense in my own practice to use different media because different mediums can do different things. I don’t really create a hierarchy of what I consider myself more of. Yes I draw all the time, and I’m also video editing and I don’t see why those things can’t coexist side by side.
TN: I think that both of our studio practices are whole worlds of our brains and worlds are complicated, but I think that sometimes maybe some of my anxiety and frustration is that I want to send a message that can then blossom into many many things.