Quynh-Mai Nguyen. Jean Melesaine
Quynh-Mai Nguyen. (Jean Melesaine)

Bay Brilliant: Quynh-Mai Nguyen

Bay Brilliant: Quynh-Mai Nguyen

Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.

For Quynh-Mai Nguyen, the most interesting stories are the ones that often go untold—the stories of women, Asian Americans, immigrants and artists.

As a Vietnamese American artist who grew up on the east side of San Jose and still lives there, she's committed to celebrating the narratives of the under-recognized, or as she calls them, a nation of hustlers.

Nguyen is also a poet, a musician and an event curator; everything she creates centers on building community. Whether it’s her Name Dictionary project that gives people “with foreign sounding names” the space they deserve on the page, performing music with her duo Q&A, curating an All Womxn’s Showcase with over 100 performers, or helping produce events that capture the fiercely vibrant and multicultural soul of San Jose like the Sonido Clash music festival, Nguyen is shaping culture, constantly questioning who gets the mic and why.

How has being from the South Bay influenced your art? Do you think the South Bay has a sound, a rhythm or a flow? If so: how would you describe it?

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When you turn any corner, you can meet an artist. They could be undercover poets or they could be DJs and you don’t actually know until you speak to them. It’s warm, there’s just a lot of soul here, it doesn’t just come through the art, it comes through the people.

Quynh-Mai Nguyen.
Quynh-Mai Nguyen. (Courtesy of the artist)

There’s a certain kind of rhythm and tension central to the work you produce, whether that's art, music, poetry or your events. Can you talk more about that?

I had an exhibition called Lips Uncurled, Eyes Forward, and that was a social art exhibition inviting other artists who identified as Asian American to tell their personal narratives of growing up through performance, workshop, seminar, or visual art, pottery and coloring. It was a space to allow people to come in and break down stereotypes and the perception that media has portrayed of us. To allow those people themselves to be those teachers.

The art piece that I did, Lips Uncurled, Eyes Forward was a visual representation of a microaggression. I’ve heard, "I can’t tell you guys apart, I don’t have my eye dictionary with me." To have that said to you at a very young age is very confusing, and it fills you with anger. So a lot of the art I try to create and a lot of my processing going through these experiences is to create art in order to challenge that narrative.

How do you see the role of community-building in the events you run and the art you create? Why do you think that’s especially important in the Bay Area today?

We’re seeing so much gentrification, especially in the east side. The prices are jumping up. But, [that’s why it’s important to create] more of a community. I’ve got your back, what do you need? Do you need more work, more visibility, do you need a favor? I’m going to attend your event or I’m going to promote your event or I’m going to go to your show.

And so it’s really the effort of the community, from artists, to organizers, to cultural workers that come together to really try to preserve the essence and the heart.

Sister Mantos perform at Sonido Clash 2017. (Samuel Reyes)

Can you tell me more about the All-Womxn’s Showcase you’ve been putting on with over 100 performers, writers, comedians and artists participating? What are the guiding principles and what’re you trying to achieve?

Being a performer, I’m fortunate to meet a lot of talented women, but I don’t feel like there are enough spaces out there just dedicated to women to take up space. Not many people know that a lot of the hustlers, a lot of the artists, are women. I see it. I work with them, I’m friends with them, and I’m inspired by them. Whether they’re holding direct positions or holding down the front lines of production, or are part of the art, or organizing the logistics, they are unseen.

If you were there last year for the All Womxn’s Showcase, where we took over Forager downtown [in San Jose]—the majority of the comments were around the vibe and the atmosphere. You can really tell when a space is created with a certain focus, whether that's as a safe space or a space just for women. It was more empowering.

Sister Mantos vocalist Oscar Miguel Santos performs at Second Annual Sonido Clash Festival, September 3, 2017.
Sister Mantos vocalist Oscar Miguel Santos performs at Second Annual Sonido Clash Festival, September 3, 2017. (Samuel Reyes)

Tell me about your work with Sonido Clash, why it’s in the South Bay and what makes it special to you?

You create an event to allow people to destress and come together for a common interest. This [year’s] 30-artist lineup is such an eclectic mix from different genres, from reggaeton, psychedelic punk, tropical, hip hop and rap. The music curation is really guided by the experiences that collective members grew up with, and the experiences of what their parents grew up with and the experiences of their friends. I believe that’s why a lot of people are drawn to Sonido Clash, because they can see that.

What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?

I can only hope that in the future, as we see more and more of our community developing, especially in San Jose, we can see more of the art integrated into it. Not just murals on walls, but more public art that comes into play and goes into our parks. And into the communities that don’t necessarily get as much funding as the downtown populated areas. More art in the east side and people’s homes and backyards.

I remember going to Tucson, Arizona and as I was driving down the street you just saw fences of murals and art. People feeling so freely to make it their own space. As big as San Jose is, I want to see all of that, everywhere. And I want to see artists be able to take seats in the decision making of how the city is developed, viewed and seen.

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