Sewing Roots To The Present
A conversation with THREADS creators Britt Pham, Prisca Choe, and Bao Ngo
About a year ago, I was invited to participate in an incredibly thoughtful and meaningful art collaboration called THREADS. HMN Creative (also known as HUMANA - powered by Prisca Choe and Britt Pham) teamed up with photographer Bao Ngo to produce THREADS, a photo series focused on the identity expression of Asians in America.
In the ever expansive metropolis known as New York City, it is easy to never cross paths with people who share the same social and professional circles as you. For Asian American artists in this great city, the community can seem sparse and fragmented as there are multiple circles lacking a cohesive agent aside from our broad cultural identity. Which can explain why it took the ubiquitous eye of social media for Britt Pham and Bao Ngo to connect in the first place. “Instagram!” Pham exclaims. An initial fan of Ngo’s work showcased on IG, Pham reached out. Soon after, the two women met over ice cream and discovered not only did they share many common acquaintances, but also had gone to The Village High School in Houston, Texas just a year or so apart. Shared interests often lead to shared projects in the creative sphere: “We didn’t know exactly what...but an Asian American centric project for sure.” Pham and Ngo remark.
Pham’s HMN Creative co-founding partner, Prisca Choe, got in on the brainstorming. The trio wanted to create a project that showed “How our generation experiences their cultures and what pieces of (their heritage) they want to bring into their lives right now.” Choe mentions.
Three talented artists. Three New York transplants. Three daughters of Asian American immigrants. Bao Ngo is a Vietnamese American born in Minneapolis; brought up there and in Texas. Britt Pham has a Vietnamese father, Laotian mother, and was born and raised in Salt Lake City with one year to spare in a Texas High School. Prisca Choe is a Korean American born and raised in Philadelphia. Choe’s parents stressed the importance of Korean culture beyond their community. “My parents started an education program for parents of Korean adoptees so their parents could expose them to the culture from their birth country...that was really amazing. But for me, it was something different. Because I didn’t speak Korean, older generations of Koreans, joking...[said] that I wasn’t Korean enough.”
Shared moments of identity, related pain, and the quest to quell and perhaps prevent that for the next generation is why THREADS spoke to me. As a Filipina American artist, I also felt left out of the tribe for not being able to speak our home language. I grew up feeling that I didn’t fully belong to American culture because I adhered so much to my Filipino values and that I didn’t fully belong to Filipino culture because of my ambition and intense desire for individual expression. My work is a strong reflection of this; what I create, my interests are all informed by my upbringing.
Choe continues, “I would say, that’s the reason why THREADS is cool...because it’s about pulling the pieces together for ourselves and defining them so we can exist within that space for ourselves.”
Lauren Jackson (she her) - Baro’t Saya (Philippines)
Out of hundreds of submissions, only 10 models were selected for the photo series. Britt Pham explains, “Some we knew. Some Bao knew from her followers. We put out a call on social media. We tried to get as much diversity as possible. We made a spread sheet of the hundreds of submissions...it was hard.” For Pham, model selection was about challenging phenotypes and physical assumptions often associated with Asian culture. “Visibility. In Asian culture, there’s a very specific standard of beauty. I think that’s something our culture struggles with.”
Prisca Choe nods her head in agreement, “Right now, it seems the larger conversation is just getting Asian people on screen or visible at all. For us, it was about who makes up Asian America. People who can claim our culture are also mixed race, gender fluid...”
“We ended up not selecting a lot of people who I would’ve loved to have shot...” Bao Ngo expounds. “...there’s something special about you. We just had to do what was feasible. Specifically, (we were) looking for other artists. Looking for people I would connect with on a personal and creative level.”
With the models selected, Prisca and Britt had extensive conversations with each one to make sure they were able to fully express themselves genuinely. “There was a lot of back and forth.” Choe recalls. “What garments they wanted to wear. Some people expressed concerns over size. I still don’t have a Hanbok [traditional Korean garment] that fits me. Leslie [Xia] repurposed the Qipao [traditional Chinese garment] into a vest because they didn’t like how it fit.”
“Leslie also purchased their Qipao from an upscale vintage clothing store...purchased it to save it from appropriation.” Ngo adds. We all laugh in celebration.
Choe shoots Pham a look, “Britt and I saw some Kimonos in a store in New Orleans and asked where they purchased them. The shop employee said, ‘I don’t know but they’re trendy.’ They couldn’t mention that they were even Japanese.”
“And they were super expensive without any context.” Pham adds.
Which is why a photo series like THREADS is so important (or at least one of the primary reasons): to take proper cultural ownership over these articles of dress. Not for fashion. But for identity and a show of importance and respect. Ngo concludes that many of our cultures were gender fluid and sex positive before introduction to the Western world brought a restrictive outlook on such attitudes original to us.“It’s about embracing those ideas again. It’s about embracing our ancestry.”
Ultimately, THREADS will mean so many different things to so many different people. It will be about expanding our definition of what it means to be Asian American. It will be about liberation. Prisca Choe smiles, “We are reclaiming ourselves as Asians that exist in the diaspora. People who are building their identities with the pieces of wherever they come from, here in America.”
Leslie Xia (they/them) - retailored Qipao (China) vest with streetwear
The creators of THREADS. From left, Bao Ngo, Britt Pham, and Prisca Choe