Interview by Christina Massolino
Feature image by Truc Truong
Truc Truong is a talented artist with an unwavering voice. Since graduating from a Bachelor in Contemporary Art, Truc has been selected for the Helpmann Academy Graduate Exhibition (2020) and a resident at Hyphenated Projects (2020). As well as undertaking Honours in Art and Design (2020), Truc has blazingly erupted into the art scene. Through all these triumphs though, Truc has struggled with mental health issues, particularly relating to racism and cultural identity as a second-generation Vietnamese Australian, born and raised in Adelaide. It is these struggles which she explores through much of her art.
Australia has a long history of racism since British invasion, particularly towards Asian individuals, refugees and immigrants e.g. White Australia Policy and ‘Yellow Fever’. Vietnam also has a history of French ‘ colonisation’. Have you experienced racism? If so, what does it look like, and do you think it holds ties to lasting effects of ‘colonisation’?
I have experienced and witnessed racism directed toward myself, family, friends and strangers. In saying that, the experience varies depending on the situation, sometimes it’s really obvious, and sometimes it’s subtle.
For example, an obvious experience I had happened while going on a walk with my dad. We were probably a 10-minute walk away from home when a car sped around the corner filled with boys, and before we could even register what was happening, we were getting egged and told to ‘go back to where we came from’. That is a really difficult memory for me because it was one of the first times I noticed the look of embarrassment on my dad’s face. I think for my dad, the issue wasn’t necessarily getting egged, it was that he couldn’t protect me from what he wanted so badly for me, which was to be considered a real Australian.
A subtle experience, which still happens today, is being told, ‘you’re alright for an Asian.’ This reminds me of being in year 7 when a beautiful Polish girl came up to me and a few other Asian girls, with her fingers pushing down on her eyes and nose saying “my older cousin told me Asians are ugly because they have slanty eyes and flat noses”. For me, that’s just one of the many recognisable products of colonisation, it’s a comment that has been said by both sides, a very Eurocentric view of what is considered beautiful, or even normal.
How has your experience of racism affected your mental health?
I began to hate my Vietnamese heritage. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my family. I began my journey of wanting to become white and rejecting my Asian culture at a very young age. This didn’t only cause problems within me; it caused my family to argue over how to raise me in order to fit in, I would hear my parents argue about what food I should eat, what sports to play, what religion I should be in, just so that the world around me would accept me as a real Aussie. I definitely internalised these negative ideas and didn’t realise it had affected me until much later. In 2016 a few traumatic experiences had occurred, and I became very suicidal. It was a really upsetting and unexpected experience, sometimes I would be totally fine, and then suddenly I would find myself writing letters to my family and friends saying goodbye. I was lucky to have my sister recognise my change in character, she booked me in for help, and we found a doctor who really cared about my physical and mental journey back to recovery. My doctor helped me recognise how experiences stemming from colonisation/racism had affected me; prior to this, I had always believed I had already worked through my trauma.
How has that journey led you to become an artist?
When I first started my journey through mental health, my doctor had prescribed me with anti-depressants and explained to me what was happening in my body and how the medication was helping me balance out my hormone levels. Even with the medication, he wanted me to understand that therapy and physical health were very important in this process and I shouldn’t be relying on the pills. The gym was mentioned in quite a few of our sessions but I had no interest, I’ve never had a good relationship with exercise. During this time, I was in my first year of Primary and Middle School Teaching and had chosen to enrol in Ceramics as an elective. From struggling to leave the house and always wanting to be by myself at home, I found myself in studio for 10-12 hours without even realising. My doctor laughed when I shared this with him, and he linked the gym to studio, something that my mind and body could exert energy into.
You’ve mentioned to me previously in conversation that some Asian artists try to be ‘invisible’ by hiding their ethnicity within their art to become more successful. Why do some artists feel this way? Have you ever done this with your own art?
It’s a very complex topic with so many different experiences and views attached to it. In an ideal world, coloured artists shouldn’t need to think about it, but many do. I can’t speak for others but from my understanding, using certain colours, textures, iconography and themes can put non-white artists into the category of ‘multi-cultural artist’ as opposed to just being considered an ‘artist’. I definitely took this on board in my first year of my arts degree; I would only look at what was recommended by my tutors, revering artist like Tuttle and Twombly, studying the way they worked and colours they used. I tried to be invisible for a while, steering away from the aesthetic that I grew up with and was surrounded by as I had internalised that everything at home was Asian, and therefore ugly and cheap.
In 2019, our final year of undergrad, you won the ‘President of the Friends of South Australian School of Art Prize’ and were also selected to be in the Helpmann Academy Graduate exhibition. These are extremely honourable accomplishments; however, you have expressed to me that some people have said you won these because of the ‘diversity card’. How did this affect your mental health and confidence?
It was really hard to hear, and for a moment I wanted to throw in the towel and leave the arts. In terms of my mental health, I’ve had to work really hard at separating the criticism I’ve received for making what others consider tacky or cheap looking art. It’s still a process. I have found a really good group in Melbourne called Hyphenated Projects, and when my confidence is shot, I’ve been able to go to them and find a place of belonging.
What do you hope to see more or less of in our contemporary arts society? Particularly in relation to galleries, arts organisations and arts education systems within Australia.
I’ve had quite a few opportunities to see exhibitions with artists of colour, but I have rare access, especially living in SA, to organisations, management, and tutors who I can look to for advice on my work and themes. You would think it’s diverse, and I’ve had tutors mention they believe it is, but it doesn’t match up. Only this year 2020, during class, I had a couple of people tell me my research proposal needed to go in a different direction because the arts is the one of the most diverse sectors in Australia. “You guys are winning stuff”. It’s not about winning. When will people realise wanting people of colour in positions of leadership is not a competition?
Your resilience and strength is genuine and moving. What do you wish to say to our reader who may struggle with some of the themes we’ve discussed? How important is reaching out for help and sharing your experience?
It’s important to reach out for help, but I know it’s not the easiest, and sometimes even possible to do. There is hope in the middle of everything, hold on! I would be careful of telling someone to ‘get over it and get help’, everyone’s experience is different.
In regard to anyone who may struggle with matters of colonisation, you will probably continually be met by people who don’t even think it’s real, but if it has been your experience, that is your truth, I hope you can find people who can walk with you in that space.
This piece was originally published in Edition 35 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.