Cultures Visual Arts

An Ode to artistically relinquishing the cultural disconnect

‘‘I am as much a part of this culture as you are.’’ These were the words which traversed a digital abyss, spanning the seemingly empty Zoom cyberspace between Daniella’s family home in Chicago, and my own bedroom here in the UK, effortlessly articulating something that I have felt innumerable times before but have been unable to voice as accurately, and one which this incredibly multifaceted artist portrays so lucidly in her work. 

Daniella Thach is a Chicago-born artist, recent graduate of SAIC, and daughter to parents who were both faced with the reality of respectively immigrating to an eighties-soaked America. Both Cambodian descendants of French colonialism, they embraced assimilation into American culture, listening to the likes of Wham! and Michael Jackson, artists which light up Daniella’s face as she tells me of her mother’s music taste during that very early period of volatile youth. 

A laugh momentarily dominates the dialogue as Daniella points out the irony in what has been framed in the background; a print of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. To her right, I am told there is a china cabinet full of Cambodian figurines, and hanging directly opposite her, there is a painting depicting architecture found in Angkor Wat. The irony seeps through the clash of Cambodian and Western influences, the two threads of influence that run through Daniella’s memories of her growing up.

As someone who cannot yet speak the languages of her parents, the artist felt an understandable rift between two identities, perpetually at odds, as well as a loss of a deeper cultural connection that could have been. The subjective power of her art becomes vehemently apparent when we piece two factors together: her inability to speak Cambodian and her determination to preserve this rich cultural presence. While at first these seem irreconcilable, but they are what brings such vivid presence and meaning to her work.

‘How do I do this when I do not speak the language nor does my family talk about their past? I think about my grandfather who kept dozens of journals in a language I cannot read. I think about my grandmother who plays karaoke in a language that I cannot sing along to.’

Whilst in conversation with the artist, it rapidly becomes clear that one can feel a sense of something brewing beneath the surface, something I can best describe as a mellowed and profound respect both for her family and her heritage, one which I am yet to see paralleled in anyone else I have ever met. These entities constitute the cardinal inspirations for Daniella’s artwork, each enabling her to strengthen her grasp on that which she seeks to preserve, namely a connection to her parents’ motherlands (Vietnam and Cambodia), and a deepening connection to her own mélanged cultural identity, one which she saw fading away and dissipating with the prospect of the passing of the current generation of her family, and the evolution which will inevitably come with the next generation. ‘Not to be morbid!’ Daniella chuckles as she lifts her hands and waves them to dismiss the initial impact of her words, cutting air and fluidly reconstructing her point, ‘but it is something that’s at the forefront of my mind, like how do I spend time with this person but not have the ability to be in her presence, and not be able to watch those karaoke videos with her, you know?’. 

When keeping this in mind, symbolism begins to come to a brim in her art’s employment and manipulation of neon, projection, and AI; an unorthodox collective of mediums all pushed to the outskirts of their traditional use. From these sources of metaphorical (and literal) light and hope, she constructs immersive installations illuminating her heritage and commenting on the ephemeral natures of culture and personal identity. In the flooding neon light she finds power, serving as a language of her own, allowing for the dramatic creation of ‘shrines and offerings to the sacrifices [her] family made’. 

An Apsara.

Looking more deeply within these pieces, we find an overwhelmingly captivating, symbolism-saturated wealth of meaning, illustrated perhaps most vividly through her use of AI and projection programming, which Daniella uses to create configurations of her own befuddled thoughts. When questioned on what exactly drew her to these mediums and why she felt they best articulated her personal grappling with two diametrically opposed cultural identities, she was quick to give a perhaps unexpected answer, one which was punctuated by the sudden ring of a distant cuckoo clock. ‘That’s an interesting question actually’ she remarked, noting that her interest in digital light projections stemmed from a growing disinterest in mediums such as paint and pencils, coupled with a desire to explore the wealth of departments her art school had to offer. One day she found herself in the middle of a neon-making class, and the next she was prolifically ‘splicing videos and translating images through algorithmic programs’ in order to cultivate visual representations of her confused sense of assimilated and cultural identity. Initially guided by her aim to challenge traditional forms of neon, namely the commercially driven neon signs pervading landscapes in late-stage capitalist America and beyond, she strived to portray the omnipresent and lavish Cambodian forms and traditional iconography she saw in spaces she navigated as she grew up using the same medium. Attracted ‘like a moth to a flame’, the empowering practice of creating one’s own light and the clash between archaic and modern seemed like the perfect manner of approaching the artistic depiction of an all too familiar struggle between old and new.

Talk of the future led Daniella to admit that she had been exposed to a very romanticised view of Cambodian heritage throughout her life, focusing on the ‘Golden Age’ of Cambodia instead of widening the scope and addressing not just the good, but also the questionable, and even the downright bad. ‘All of these parts are integral to me as a person. I would not exist if it wasn’t for those events, and so I’ve been dealing with how to create a language which shows this history in a way that isn’t just what has already been said about it, but what can further be said through the lens of someone who is a direct product of it’. In her imminent endeavours, Daniella will be focusing on the monolith task of finding a way to deliver this perspective in a raw and unembellished manner whilst further growing into her own cultural identity and perceptions of her own connections to Cambodia. It is inevitable that both the skill with which this will be done and the consequent ripples Daniella’s art work will create in the Chicago and American art scenes will even further render her work to be of immense impact and significance to many.

Coincidentally, The Oxford Blue has just launched an Art and Creative writing magazine ‘The Blueprint’. The theme for the 4th issue is, rather like Danila’s work, ‘Multicultural Identity’. If you’ve enjoyed this article and feel it speaks to some of your own creative work that you would like to publish, do submit it here.

Having been raised in Bulgaria, Bea Petrova (she/her) moved to Scotland at the age of six, which spurred on her interest in the notion of identity, as well as the question of what constitutes a home. Her primary interests span a multitude of areas including philosophy, art, literature, film, politics, and classics.