Exploring The Migrant Crisis: The Artwork of KV Duong

When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

I’ve been doodling all my life. I remember in my Grade two class the teacher asked the kids to colour in these giant numbered signs. At the end of the class she went through the colouring exercise and highlighted to the class a few that she liked. And then she presented the last ones, the ones she liked the most. These were numbers with tiny hands, legs, faces and hats added to them. They were drawn by me :) I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back I’ve always had a creative spark early on.

I studied art until the end of high school in Canada (the equivalent of the A levels here) but instead pursued a career in civil engineering. But I always kept up with art as a hobby throughout. To answer your question, if being a professional artist means to sell your work for some monetary value as oppose to gifts, then this year is when I decided I want to be an artist.

So you studied civil engineering instead of art, why is that?

My family and I immigrated to Canada when I was six years old. They sacrificed a lot to give their children a better chance at education, freedom of speech and life opportunities. I wouldn’t be here with you in London had they not made the sacrifice to leave Vietnam.

The social pressures growing up in an immigrant family is to study hard and have a “proper job”- doctor, lawyer, dentist, teacher, engineer etc. So after four years of undergraduate studies, two more years of post-graduate and 11 years as a structural engineer, here I am trying to make a breakthrough at my original passion, art. In life we always come back to our passions, whether you have the guts to pursue them right away or you carry on after retirement. I have decided this was the year.

What happened this year, where did this sudden spark come from?

In February I applied for the Derwent Art Prize; I had entered for this prize along with the Royal Academy summer exhibition two years ago and got rejected both times. So I didn’t think much of the Derwent entry this year and then to my complete surprise, I received a reply back from them in June stating one of my entries has been shortlisted for the prize and will be part of the group exhibition in September. That was really the catalyst. Within a two month span, I created an art webpage, started a Facebook art page, changed my Instagram account, business cards and all and presented my work to the public for the first time at the Tribe16 exhibition.

Fluidity of Life Part II, 2016. Acrylic on wooden pallet, 95 x 65 cm

How was your work received at Tribe16?

Very well (thankfully). Warm reception from the general public. It was the first time I’d ever done something like this. It was completely exhausting but worth it. To be able to connect with a complete stranger for five minutes to tell them your story and for them to be moved and inspired by your story makes it all worth it – this to me is what being an artist is all about. And I sold! Which was completely unexpected but highly motivating to continue. It gives you the confidence to carry on with your dream.

Your theme for this year is about the immigrant crisis, why this topic and why now?

Because it is relevant and personal. The migrant crisis has been happening for much too long now and we as developed nations have to chip in.

The issues faced by the migrants hit close to home. My goal is to make the general public more aware of the situation. In this series, I am documenting their physical and emotional journeys and struggles. My aunt and her family were boat people from Vietnam. They were in a refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to Canada. My immediate family and I were sponsored to Canada but my parents lived through the Vietnam War; my mom was shot in the hand when fleeing her home while carrying her younger sister in her arms; my dad was drafted for the war but fortunately turned back for having glaucoma. As immigrants to Canada, my parents sacrificed their comfort to give their children the chance at freedom and opportunity.

Mom, are we home yet, Part I, 2016. Pen and pencil on paper. 115 x 65 cm

You are quite explorative in your technique.

Indeed. And I am still on this explorative journey because it is exciting to me. With so many up and coming artists, how does one distinguish him/ herself? It is very difficult; for me exploring different materials is my attempt to break through.

The choice of wooden pallet ended up as a perfect metaphor to the migrant’s journey: a pallet is a flat wooden structure used for industrial transport purposes and not usually looked at in any other way. Once it passes its life usage, it becomes junk. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. The migrants are transporting their lives across the continent, dumped into an unfamiliar territory and have to make do with the situation they’ve been given to create a place call home.

In the pieces “Mom, are we home yet” Part I and II, I used staggered paper cut outs to create movement and uncertainty.

I came across the American artist Tara Donovan doing installations of everyday things from Styrofoam cups to toothpicks. She has been a great influence in my creative process the past few months. I started creating sculptures out of espresso cups and am in the process of making an espresso cup lamp for my new flat.

I saw Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the White Cube last month; his scale of work is mind blowing and use of materials and texture are extraordinary.

How do you find balance being an artist and having a full time job?

It is difficult, my goal is to become a full time artist within five years’ time. The good thing about not relying on art for income at the moment is you are allowed to experiment and be creative and free and just do it for yourself. So I hope that with more success next year, maybe in a year’s time I can go part-time and then slowly see how the income works. If someone told me I would make the same engineering salary tomorrow, I would quit.

Part, 2016. Pen, pencil and acrylic on wooden pallet. 95 x 65 cm

What can we expect from you next year?

Abstract expressionism! I’ll be using oil for the first time since high school and going large scale (or as big as I can fit through my flat door).  Gerhard Richter has been a major influence – his abstraction series. The Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the RA has been education to say the least. I’d never seen a Mark Rothko up close and personal before and wow are his works incredible. This exhibition definitely changed my opinions of him and Pollock.

The theme for my next series will be London: my life experiences over the past six years. I cannot wait to start.

KV Duong will be exhibiting his explorative artworks in Focus LDN's 2016 Winter Exhibition

For tickets to the private view click here.