Expressing Identity through Painting: an interview with Celia Bui Le
Celia Bui Le (Columbia College ’22) is a first-year student initially from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) but currently in Mississippi. She is interested in linguistics and is an avid painter. Below, Celia discusses several of her paintings and how making art functions as a method of expressing her identity as a queer and Asian woman.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Kevin Le.
K: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re doing here?
C: My name is Celia Le and I’m in CC’s class of 2022.
K: Where are you from?
C: I’m from Saigon.
K: What are you interested in?
C: Potentially linguistics, Nôm studies.
K: How did you get into painting, what influences do you have? Why do you enjoy doing it?
C: That’s a deep question that requires a long answer but…
K: Feel free to go for the long answer if you’d like!
C: Basically, my identity as a queer, Asian woman living in Saigon — after living in Saigon I moved to Mississippi, which is very homogenous compared to where I lived before — so I just wanted to find ways to express my identity by paintings.
K: So, I noticed in the paintings that you gave, there seem to be a lot of different styles that you do —
C: How so?
K: Well I don’t know too much about paintings to be honest, still need to take Art Hum haha, so maybe these are all the same and I don’t realize it. But for example, a painting like this is very different from one like that. Is there any painting that you want to talk more about? The process of making it, what’s it about, if you’re comfortable with that.
C: Which one do you think would be interesting to talk about?
K: Could I ask about multiple?
Painting Highlight #1: Trang
K: So someone in VSA actually knows the person who modeled in this painting (“Trang”), could you tell me more about it?
C: So it’s an áo dài, the Vietnamese national costume. When I was drawing this it was like 3 AM, and I just wanted to draw something, and my friend is the model. Let me show you some pictures. Do you know Nam Phương?
C: Do you know the Nguyen Dynasty?
C: So that was the last dynasty before Ho Chi Minh took over. So Nam Phương was the last empress of Vietnamese, and this painting was kind of inspired by her because she is a product of, back then, the South Vietnamese and French intellectual community. She just has this gracefulness behind her. So I guess the yellow is to represent royalty, and I just wanted to juxtapose that color with the sky background. And also the sky background is generally associated with an optimistic viewpoint in art. I guess it’s kind of a trope to use sky to represent optimism. And I can’t really put this into words, but Nam Phương’s fate was tragic considering she was the last empress, I kind of wanted to put it together.
K: Why did you have your friend make that expression in the painting? Or was that just she looked like at the time?
C: It’s kind of like the classic model or fashion face. I guess it would be appropriate for her to smile too.
K: What do you like most about this painting?
C: I think I was pretty f**king proud at how I transitioned the shade of her face. Well, I’m also proud of how I managed the lighting on the headdress.
Painting Highlight #2: Bảo Lộc
K: I guess going back to the different styles, could you tell me more about this painting (“Bảo Lộc”) here?
C: Let me find a picture for reference — when is your class again?
C: So basically that’s my grandfather’s home town in Vietnam, Bảo Lộc, which is near Da Lat if you know that. The style is inspired by this one artist who does paintings of the old towns of Hanoi.
K: Which artist is that?
C: There you go — Bùi Xuân Phái. So this is an oil painting, so basically very rigid and repetitive composition, and somewhat impressionistic.
K: So you chose to use this style because the towns he painted were similar to your grandfather’s hometown?
C: To me, his generation of art represents the old Vietnamese art.
K: In terms of that, how would you contrast old Vietnamese art with new Vietnamese art?
C: That’s a deep question that should not be answered by someone who just woke up. Actually the more I think about it, the more that he’s like new art compared to the old art that shows the beauties of royal life. The new generation of artists portray more realistic and somewhat more day to day aspects of life.
K: That’s interesting, because when we talk about art here, you usually see a movement from realistic to more abstract. Or by more realistic do you mean just because it’s documenting more day to day life?
C: I would say both. The subject of the art is something you can relate to and the method of painting is not something that pays attention to every detail. I actually painted this with a knife.
K: That’s very cool. So would you say that there are general themes in your paintings that you tend to gravitate more towards? Or do you see something interesting, or see an artist’s style that you like, and you just go for it?
C: Whenever I paint I’m usually a bit out of it and I just go for it.
K: Why do you feel more inclined to paint in that state?
C: I can summon more confidence I guess.
Painting Highlight #3: Disenchantment
K: So which of these paintings do you like the most? Are there some you like more than others? So tell me more about this one (“Disenchantment”) for example. What’s going on here?
C: I actually used to write something that explains this painting.
K: Is this the description that you wanted to send over?
C: No, just because I had a whole series on it, there was a lot more. *Shows more paintings*
K: Oh wow that’s crazy, these are all really good.
C: Thank you! I’m trying to find *scrolls through descriptions* — basically this is the theme of these portraits.
K: The French technique used refers to colors used when we see different lights from different angles that embodies — I’m saying this out loud to get this on recording — the diversity seen in the multiple facets of humanity. Consequently, the woman’s self expression and attitude portrays women as complex beings. The painting provides society glimpses into their essence, thus seeking to illustrate the vital piece that carries the chaotic and human thoughts of woman, in its general form of both elegance and rawness.
C: In this portraits, I try to portray the diversity of woman, by different poses, different ways, different backgrounds and also patterns. Just basically yeah.
Painting Highlight #4: Infernal
K: Could you tell me more about this one? Anything you want to comment about this one that comes to mind?
C: Honestly, the pattern is supposed to be more oriental patterns. But basically, what I had in mind when I painted this, was like rebellion against East Asian oppression of sexuality.
K: So how do you think this captures that?
C: So blue is also the color associated with virginal — Virgin Mary, for example. So you have the blue background, and she’s kind of wearing a 40’s Shanghai style dress. And that was kind of a rebellious period in general, with the jazz movement and whatnot.
K: So this is kind of a general thing, but when you have people in your paintings, all of their expressions seem reserved or somewhat observant. So, I’m not really sure how to phrase this well — but I guess is there a reason behind that? Is it just because that’s the model’s face (as referred to with the “Trang” painting)? That’s just something I noticed.
C: Well let’s say with other art, do you usually see this reserved face?
K: I guess you do see this reserved face, and I think it matches with what you bring in terms of capturing all these different natures of gender, sexuality, culture, and so on. You have these very neutral expressions, but your colors and patterns are very vibrant. I think it’s really cool that even though you say you’re having a tough time bringing these things to words, I can clearly see what you’re trying to get at by looking at these paintings.
C: I think the face that someone makes when they’re lost in their own thoughts is a very attractive face to paint, which is why I like to paint it. It’s a state that’s very internal.
K: Is there anything else you want to say about your paintings?
C: Like in general?
K: Could be about anything specific too.
C: Which one should be on preview?
K: I think this one here would be a really great one. I think you did a great job of describing it, if you prefer to send over a description later, or just prefer for me to use what was said here, what would you like?
C: If I feel better later, I’ll send over a description.
K: So I guess more general questions I should have asked earlier — how long have you been painting for? Did you just pick it up casually?
C: Just casually, I never took an art class outside of high school.
K: So when did you start?
C: I would say that I seriously started painting when I was 5.
K: So when exactly did you move to Mississippi?
K: And I guess, would you say that — how would you say that transition impacted you or your art, or just one aspect of it? Did your paintings change as you transitioned between these two very different parts of the world?
C: I think the immigration experience brought out a really intense desire to do all of this sort of stuff. So, in Mississippi, I really stand out as a queer, Asian immigrant. I don’t think that’s very common in Mississippi. And I feel like, because we’re not common in Mississippi, a lot of times we’re misunderstood — if I may say it like that. So, I had a desire to paint to — I don’t know — help express to people what my identity is. Educate is a big word, and I’m not sure I’d describe what I’m doing is that.
K: You can just leave it that if you’d like, like you said it can be hard to put these things to words.
Painting Highlight #5: X
C: I can’t even speak English, man. Also this painting (“X”) was referring to the hijab ban in France.
K: Oh yeah that’s been a big controversy.
C: The patterns and the colors. Just wanted to mention that.
K: I would ask more about painting, but it looks like we’re running low on time. I think with all of these paintings, in general we were all super impressed. These are incredible. What made you decide to submit to the Zine? It doesn’t have to be a deep answer. I’ve met a lot of really creative people, but I see a mix of people who like to keep it to themselves (nothing wrong with that) or feel it’s important to share.
C: Representation for Vietnamese artists.
K: Are there any questions you have for me?
C: No, I think I’m good.
K: Sounds good. Thank you for coming to talk this morning!
unSEAled is Columbia University’s Southeast Asian Zine, a new mini-magazine focusing on sharing Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian-American voices. The Zine will be published at the end of November, stay tuned to see even more of Celia’s work and work from several other artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and more!