Silence = Death: Interpreting the Shadows and Words of Antonius-Tín Bui’s Not Sorry for the Trouble

Still Here: Art on HIV/AIDS from October 29th to December 7th at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Written by Marjorie Antonio

Antonius-Tín Bui’s papercut works are lined up at the forefront of Stamp Gallery in this year’s exhibition “Still Here: Art on HIV/AIDS.” Underneath the gallery spotlights, the complicated shadows of the intricate papercut works are exposed, lending the two-dimensional works a three-dimensional effect. I interpret this effect as an allegory to a marginalized community within the greater marginalized community of gay culture: Asian American LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Asian American LGBTQIA+ individuals exist. While it may have gone without saying, it is not uncommon for Asian American families and overall culture to brush off “tendencies” of queer AAPIs. Gender and sex are not often talked about within Asian American families, especially within Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, and Cambodian refugee populations, many of whom experienced trauma due to war and militarization. Communication between the 1st generation and 2nd generation Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are impacted by stress factors such as language barriers, acculturation gaps, and culture shocks.bui.jpg

Bui’s Not Sorry for the Trouble is a response to the shared AAPI experience of intergenerational trauma, as well as a challenge to the stereotypical notions that AAPIs are silent, apolitical, and submissive. Looking at the structures of Not Sorry for the Trouble, the cut paper forms are delicate and incredibly detailed. This medium may also be a nod to the Chinese origin of the paper cutting art form. The shadows of the cut paper forms elevate the pieces from the physical flatness and provide a mesmerizing effect for the viewer from all angles. Each piece has a dedicated spotlight that emphasizes an illusioned physical depth. I interpreted this depth as the elucidation of Bui’s message about aspects of the AAPI and AAPI LGBTQIA+ community.

The cut paper forms are crafted around a phrase, in order as follows: “Fight Segregaytion”, “Silence = Death”, “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!”, “Not Your Submissive Bottom”, and “Not Your Token.” “Segregaytion” refers to the predominant white, heteropatriarchal gay spaces that Bui exists in. I interpreted this piece as a response to gay culture as determined by white men, which have marginalized racial minorities who identify as gay. By speaking of the divide within the gay community, Bui advocates “fighting segregaytion” and finding unity instead. “Not Your Submissive Bottom” and “Not Your Token” both refer to the perceptions of AAPI LGBTQIA+ individuals. It is commonly perpetuated in the media and popular culture that gay Asian men are “submissive bottoms” due to the effeminate performative qualities that some gay Asian men subscribe to. This is a harmful stereotype since it does not speak for all gay Asian men and has greater implications if one considers the history of white colonialism, supremacy, and militarism in Asia. The “submissive” trait that is tacked on Asian and Asian American individuals is a product of lingering power dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized, where the colonizer is the white man and the colonized are the imperial subjects and indigenous population. Bui challenges the problematic perceptions of AAPI LGBTQIA+ individuals by providing a medium to discuss the oftentimes forgotten history of United States imperialism in Asia. 

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Bui’s pieces “Silence = Death” speaks directly to the shared Asian experience of silence. The American emphasis of the 1st Amendment right to free speech is contrasted to the shared Asian experience of silence about intersectional issues of gender, sex, racism, and abuse. By leaving these issues to fester in the shadows, Asian Americans, not just AAPI LGBTQIA+ individuals, are at risk for sexually transmitted infections. According to an article published by Thy Vo in 2016, “Asian Americans are the least likely to use protection, with 40 percent of Asian American women having unprotected sex in their lifetime, according to a 2005 study. Another study found that 44 percent of college-aged Chinese and Filipino women used withdrawal as a contraceptive method, compared to the national average of 12 percent.” These statistics show that the silence surrounding AAPI issues impact the health of the greater AAPI community, in addition to AAPI LGBTQIA+ individuals. “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!” is a call-to-action of mobilizing the AAPI community to reduce the risk of AIDS. 

While I have attempted to interpret Bui’s work in the lenses of Asian American history, post/colonialist studies, LGBTQIA+ studies, and art form, I acknowledge that I am only scratching the surface of what their work truly conveys. Not Sorry for the Trouble is a dynamic work that every time I view it, I come out with another interpretation that leaves me wondering how five cut paper forms capture the essence of a shared Asian American experience. It is also a homage to the LGBTQIA+ AAPIs who have been actively forgotten and erased.

I am only able to interpret Bui’s work to this extent due to my privilege in learning about Asian American history and other intersectional issues that the AAPI community experiences through University of Maryland, College Park’s Asian American Studies program. I recognize that not many people are able to learn about the marginalized histories of AAPIs in an academic setting, and my own experience is uncommon within the larger academic emphasis on the United States and European histories. I am cognizant that my research and academic interests are focused in Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Therefore, I am not as familiar in East Asian influences in Bui’s work, so I elected to not focus on the East Asian shared experience, but others have. The community of AAPI artists, performers, and creatives are growing and I am excited to see if and how they visualize their experiences in their artistic work.

bui 2.jpgI was incredibly humbled when Bui’s work was featured at the Stamp Gallery since I do not see a lot AAPI artists in museum and gallery spaces especially in conversation about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is dominated by the gay white male perspective. Antonius-Tín Bui is a queer, gender non-binary, Vietnamese American artist who created Not Sorry for the Trouble who engages and will to continue to engage a dialogue on AAPI sexuality, silence, perceptions. Under the gallery spotlights, the cut paper forms of Not Sorry for the Trouble drop shadows that bring intrigued observers in, setting the stage for a larger dialogue of the intersections of art, AAPI identity, Asian American history, LGBTQIA+ issues, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and so much more. 

Antonius-Tín Bui is the child of Paul and Van Bui, two Vietnamese refugees. Not Sorry for the Trouble is a series of traditional cut paper forms that have re-imagined to confront Asian American Pacific Islander issues. The phrases incorporated stand in contrast to the stereotypical perception of AAPIs as being silent, apolitical, and submissive. These five works from the series are directly inspired by Bui’s lived experience as a queer, gender non-binary, Vietnamese American in a predominantly white, heteropatriarchal gay spaces. Bui made this work specifically for their queer ancestors, the LGBTQIA+ AAPIs who have been actively forgotten and erased.

References and Further Reading: 

“A Day in the Queer Life of Asian Pacific America,” Smithsonian Asian Pacific Islander Center. http://smithsonianapa.org/day-queer-life/

“Billy Porter Gives A Brief History of Queer Political Action,” Youtube Video, 5:44, posted by “them,” June 27, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoXH-Yqwyb0

David, E.J. R., “We Have Colonial Mentality: An Honest Call to the Filipino American Community,” in Filipino American Psychology: Personal Narratives, 97-105. Edited by Nadal, 2010.

See, Sarita E. The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Vo,Thy. “A Hard Silence to Break: LBGT Vietnamese Struggle for Understanding.” Voice of Orange County, February 8, 2016. Accessed November 9, 2019. https://voiceofoc.org/2016/02/a-hard-silence-to-break-lgbt-vietnamese-struggle-for-understanding/

Antonius-Tín Bui’s work is included in Still Here: Art on HIV/AIDS at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from October 29th to December 7th, 2019. 

For more information on Antonius-Tín Bui, visit http://www.antoniusbui.com/.



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