Slender Threads: Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s The Specter of Ancestors Becoming

While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it in their own hands. —Michel-Rolph Trouillot1Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 153.

Immersed in Saigon-born artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s four-channel screen projection The Spectres of Ancestors Becoming (2019), near physical form and presence emerge with the stirring narrative conveyed by the compelling voices of men, women, and children who share a common but little-known transnational history—that of Senegal’s Vietnamese brides and mothers. Nguyen’s narrative-cum-dialogue magisterially transforms Dakar’s RAW Material Company into a dark alcove, a perception field where the fabulations of Senegal’s Vietnamese community reach us from different corners of the room. The cross-generational dialogue is made to brush one’s shoulders and cheeks, raising those fine, emotional hairs that seem to come to life with spectral narratives. This powerful, multi-prismatic, individual yet plural hymn—a Senegalese-Vietnamese “community voice”2Justin Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers: Rejecting French Colonial Disposability in The Specters of Ancestors Becoming” in Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, exh. cat. (Dakar: RAW Material Company, 2022), 28.—emanates from Nguyen’s longtime local collaborators: Vietnamese women, their African partners, their Métis children, and their once-distant in-laws. Nguyen’s narrative traces the fine crisscross, slender colonial trajectories of peoples displaced, the threads invisibly stretched across the French Imperial map by colonial administrators. Unsettling and displacing cartography, Nguyen attends to stories of south-south solidarity, forbidden love, conflicted departures, slow arrivals, Creole synthesis, and generational resilience.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The Specter of Ancestors Becoming. 2019. 4-channel video installation, color, 7.1 surround sound, 28 minutes, with family photographic archives of the Vietnamese-Senegalese community, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and James Cohan, New York. © Kerry Etola Viderot / RAW Material Company

Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s elegy The Specter of Ancestors Becoming recalls the in/visibilized transnational solidarities and intimacies forged despite colonial surveillance, abuse, violence, and death during France’s nine-year guerrilla war known as the First Indochina War (1946–54). At the root of his project is a group of men known as the tirailleurs sénégalais, or Senegalese riflemen—colonial troops not only of Senegalese origin3Men in the ranks of the tirailleurs sénegalaise came from French colonial federations in sub-Saharan Africa, namely French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. These men were deployed to North Africa, the Levant, Indochina, and Madagascar. As Sarah Zimmerman rightly notes, they played crucial roles in assembling and disassembling French Empire, and provide a unique perspective that challenges French colonial readings not of this military institution but rather of life under colonialism. See Sarah Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries: West African Servicemen in French Colonial Conflicts, 1908–1962” (PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2011).—who fought for France in the first half of the twentieth century as part of the colonialist’s last claim for power, and their lost (and found) Vietnamese sweethearts, loves, and wives.4In addition to the First Indochina War, the tirailleurs fought in World War I, having, in the case of the latter, numbered approximately 165,000 West Africans, 170,000 Algerians, 60,000 Tunisians, and 24,000 Moroccans. See Alison S. Fell and Nina Wardleworth, “The Colour of War Memory: Cultural Representations of Tirailleurs Sénégalais,” Journal of War & Cultural Studies 9, no. 4 (2016): 320. As Myron Echenberg notes, “The Tirailleurs Sénégalais were unique in the colonial experience of the Western powers in Africa. Only France brought about an intense militarization of its African colonies. Only France instituted universal male conscription in peace as in war from 1912 until 1960. . . . What distinguished France from other powers was its determination to use the Tirailleurs Sénégalais extensively as an expeditionary force in every corner of the French empire, whether for purposes of conquest, occupation, or later, counterinsurgency. From these uses came still another, the defense of the mother country.” See Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; London: James Currey, 1991), 4. As scholar and historian Sarah Zimmerman has noted, “[The Indochina War] was the first large-scale anti-colonial war where evidence suggests that the tirailleurs sénégalais questioned their role in French colonialism.”5Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 3.

A 1956 map in French of the various provinces of the Republic of Vietnam. Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, Wesley R. Fishel Papers

The Tirailleurs

As early as 1946, camps in West Africa and France began preparing West African troops to participate in late colonial “counterinsurgency” operations in the Annam and Tonkin regions of Indochina. The first troops, known as the tirailleurs sénégalais, arrived in Hanoi and Haiphong in 1947, despite their effort and contribution to World War I and II going unrecognized.6I refer here to the Thiaroye massacre of 1944, when West African riflemen—read liberators of France— returned from Europe after four years of captivity, to be killed by their French officers after demanding the compensation they were owed. As Abdoulaye Bah has noted, the general public did not know about this tragedy until 1988, when the film Camp de Thiaroye by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène was released. It should be noted that the film was banned in France for seventeen years. I have chosen to mention Semène’s film in this brief footnote as it demonstrates art’s capacity to restitute, to unsettle and lift the dust that has intentionally been left to gather and occlude certain tarnishing events in European history. For more on the Thiaroye massacre, see Martin Mourre, “The Thiaroye massacre and its memory,” EHNE Digital Encyclopedia of European History website, https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/europe-europeans-and-world/colonial-and-post-colonial-memories/thiaroye-massacre-and-its-memories. To render the service attractive after the two great wars, the French passed laws converting African “volunteers” to conscripts by the end of their first year of service. Intermediaries, known as chefs de cantons and chefs de cercles, produced new ”volunteers,” accumulating favors and monetary bonuses in exchange for their coercion of African youths. As part of their campaign to win men over, the French colonial military funded a range of public spectacles, such as “parachutist demonstrations, photo expositions, speeches by veterans, and film screenings.”7Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 102. In light of this, many young men considered a career in the army as a means to secure economic and social independence. Part of the promise of an ameliorated life included attending the École des enfants de troupes (which, in reality, did no more than indoctrinate servicemen into military order and teach them basic French) and the École militaire préparatoire africaine, or military school which offered technical training in areas of great interest, such as radio operation, auto mechanics, and French language skills. In addition to this, room, board, and tuition were sponsored by the military. But most tirailleurs serving in the First Indochina War did not attend these schools, and instead trained for a mere five weeks at a military camp in Southern France.8Ibid., 104. This camp was located in Fréjus. Rather than providing them with important skills for field operations in Indochina—particularly, and key to survival, water operations and swimming—the military placed greater emphasis on French comprehension and literary skills. As such, “volunteers” were ill-prepared for the challenges they faced, and the soggy territory that varied greatly from the dry Sahel and West African Savannah they were used to.9Intense rain, mudslides, and flash floods meant that these men spent most of their time immersed, having “to stand or march in water, sometimes thigh-deep, for over twenty-four hours at a time.” As a result, they not only developed podiatric maladies, but also ingested contaminated water, which led to dysentery and other intestinal disorders, and developed beriberi brought on by poor nutrition. Ibid., 106. Many deaths went unrecorded, but it is estimated that some 20,700 French nationals, “of all origins,” including the “Metropolitan colonial army” died and that 22,000 were wounded; African troops coming from French “North Africa” and “Black Africa” accounted for 15,200 deaths and 13,900 wounded.10Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, “The Indochina War, 1945–1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool,” Université du Québec à Montréal website, https://indochine.uqam.ca/en/historical-dictionary/223-casualties-indochina-war.html.

Optimizing the fact that the French did not recuperate the bodies of dead soldiers, some tirailleurs crossed the enemy line, joining the Vietminh. Aware of the fact that the “enemy” did not execute their prisoners of war, but instead put them to work, others defected, choosing to bide their time doing hard labor, which was no different from the work they did for the French, until they were freed.

Many—including those who swore allegiance to France—fell in love, transgressing the political divisions and chronological boundaries of war.

We fought as best we could in Indochina but in the end the VietMinh (sic) were too strong for us. They were fighting to be free and we were fighting because we were told to do so by our officers. There is a difference. — Goulli Zo, Tougan, Burkina Faso11Goulli Zo, interview by Myron Echenberg, April 7, 1969; quoted in Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, xiii.

Love across Division

Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The Specter of Ancestors Becoming. 2019. 4-channel video installation, color, 7.1 surround sound, 28 minutes, with family photographic archives of the Vietnamese-Senegalese community, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and James Cohan, New York. © Kerry Etola Viderot / RAW Material Company

Such is the case of Lan and Waly, the two protagonists in Nguyen’s first episode, written by Anne Marie Niane, one of the artist’s local collaborators, who herself left Vietnam at age five.12Anne Marie Niane, née Corea, was born in 1950 in Ho-chi-minh City (formerly Saigon). Her father came from Saint-Louis in Senegal and her mother was from Saigon, where her parents met when her father was a recruit in the French army. Niane was five years old when her family returned to Senegal. After completing primary and secondary school in Senegal, she studied in Paris from 1968 to 1974. She returned to Dakar in 1975 and is author of L’étranger et douze autres nouvelles (Paris: Hatier, 1985). Niane worked with Nguyen to “rememory”13 “Rememory” was first employed by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved as a process of actively revisiting and reconstructing a cultural past. Effectively summed up by Amanda Littke, rememory is “the active remembrance of a memory which allows for a comingling of the past and present, creating an alternate sense of reality for those who remember.” See Amanda Littke, “Morrison’s Magical Reality: Disrupting the Politics of Memory” (MA thesis, Oregon State University, 2010), https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/k930c243m. the dialogue between her forebears, dialogues that, in Justin Phan’s words, “could have taken place, but never did.”14Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers,” 26. Married for six years with three children, the couple, who Nguyen revisits by way of analepsis, find themselves at an anti-colonial crossroads raised by the French whirlwind evacuation upon defeat.15The First Indochina War ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. Evacuees were taken from Tonkin to Saigon, then Saigon to France, and only then to West Africa. See Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 117. In their stiflingly hot, cinematic kitchen, within earshot of their young children, husband and wife debate whether to take up the French exit ticket offered them aboard the Marseille-bound SS Pasteur.16According to stipulations agreed upon at the Geneva Conference of April 26-July 21, 1954, the French were required to withdraw to south of the 17th parallel within three hundred days of the conference’s conclusion. During the countdown from July 21, 1954, the French military located, processed, and evacuated French forces and prisoners of war, soldiers’ Indochinese wives and children. Lan and Waly, too, faced a ticking clock. They have settled on this eastern edge of mainland Southeast Asia, or so it appears, for the room exudes a warmth and hominess, a care redoubled by Lan’s slow, ritual washing of the family’s dishes. Understandably reluctant and anxious, Lan takes issue with Waly’s ultimatum to abandon Vietnam with her children, or remain alone. She is trepidatious, torn: What position will she hold as a Vietnamese woman and wife in Dakar? What names will her beloved children be called, knowing the treatment already meted out to her by French colonial occupiers?17As Justin Phan notes, Vietnamese women were often treated as concubines and mistresses and referred to by the colonial French as congaï, a derogatory term suggesting their “availability.” Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers,” 30. Waly, in turn, cannot fathom betraying the ambiguous but strong bonds tying him to France. Staying would be a betrayal, to which Lan jabs, “So you prefer to betray me?” This is a clash of parental viewpoints and affiliations the couple will revisit and replay, time and again, and a haunting tension Nguyen and his collaborators jointly stage to recall the colonial conundrum that families, forged across colonial and color lines, ultimately encountered.

Marius Bar (1862–1930). Le paquebot français SS Pasteur. Lancement à Saint-Nazaire. This photograph is in the public domain in its country of origin.

Orality (the word spoken) and aurality (the word as it [re]sounds) are privileged sites in Nguyen’s oeuvre. Some of us hear ghosts, others of us address them, not—and here I paraphrase Karen Barad—to entertain or reconstruct a narrative of what once was, but “to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit (from the past and the future).”18Karen Barad, “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come,” in Deconstruction and Science, special issue, Derrida Today 3, no. 2 (2010), 264. On choosing to have the writers of the script read their dialogues on one screen, while actors ventriloquize them to their re-staging on the other, without both screens ever entirely existing in full view of a somewhat dis/oriented audience in the center of the room, negotiating their angle of vision in this changing horizontal field, Nguyen cultivates the “force of the conjunction,”19Helen Molesworth, “And,” Idea Lab lecture series (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, June 30, 2022). a variable space-time juxtaposition, playing with lip sync that allows the spectral (and unsaid) to slip through and take hold.

It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it. —Jacques Derrida20Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1993), xix.


History—the stories we tell—is made of omissions and silences, and is never replete, never black, white, or as clear-cut or conclusive as the patriarchal victors of war will have us believe. Not exclusively contained in the “ordered narrative of books,” or hushed archival corridors, history as novelist Alex Halberstadt reminds us, is an “affliction that spread[s] from parent to child, sister to brother, husband to wife.”21Alex Halberstadt, Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020), 59. As displaced peoples and their born and unborn children can attest, history lives through us without our consent or even our knowledge.

Observed from the margins, Nguyen compels viewers to consider memory, and how life in revolution took place beyond official, state-dug trenches and mute archival records. As a matter of fact, despite French opposition to relationships between originaires, Senegalese (and French) troops cohabited with the Vietnamese, building ties of trade, anti-colonial solidarity, intimacy, and love. Senegalese men lived married lives in Indochina. Some lost contact with their partners and children when transferred to another combat zone; others lived side by side in military family housing throughout the conflict; many extended their tours of duty in order to file and receive paperwork validating their marriages to local women.22The French military was obligated to increase monthly salaries of sub-Saharan infantrymen formally married to Indochinese women so these men could support their families. According to Sarah Zimmerman, colonial officers were required to put in formal requests through the military chain of command prior to receiving marriage certificates. Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 117. The end of the war separated and ruined families. In some cases, Indochinese families pressured their daughters to remain in Indochina while their partners claimed paternal rights to their children; in others, children accompanied their fathers to West Africa, definitively losing contact with their mothers. In certain stances, Indochinese women delivered their children to French social programs.

Family photographic archives of the Vietnamese-Senegalese community, overall dimensions variable. Family photographic archives of © Merry Beye Diouf © Macodou Ndiaye © Marie Nguyen Thiva Tran © Jean Claude DÔ Van © Mbaye Diouf © Célina Falla Diouf © Françoise Ndiaye © Amy Ndiaye © Carmen Leissa Barry © Ousseynou Faye © Pape Charles Seck © Sophie Diagne

Included in the Dakarese iteration of the installation23The Spectre has subsequently been included in the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 2022. are constellations of local family albums—tender and intimate betokening snapshots of time, tradition, and togetherness—marriage, the growth of families and communities, communion as sharing of food.24I am alluding here to nems, local spring rolls that are now considered a national dish. Nems were in fact brought to Dakar by Jean Gomis, himself the son of a French soldier and Vietnamese mother. Before weddings, Vietnamese women living in Dakar gather in one house to cook for two or three days, “marinating pork, rolling spring rolls, and reciting poetry.” Nellie Peyton, “How Spring Rolls Got to Dakar,” Slate, November 7, 2016, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2016/11/the-strange-story-of-how-spring-rolls-became-senegals-go-to-snack.html. Retrieved from intimate troves and entrusted to Nguyen, RAW, and its visitors, these testimonies call on our capacity to hold and truly care for the memories of resilience and resistance embedded in the colonial betwixt.



  • 1
    Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 153.
  • 2
    Justin Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers: Rejecting French Colonial Disposability in The Specters of Ancestors Becoming” in Tuan Andrew Nguyen: The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, exh. cat. (Dakar: RAW Material Company, 2022), 28.
  • 3
    Men in the ranks of the tirailleurs sénegalaise came from French colonial federations in sub-Saharan Africa, namely French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. These men were deployed to North Africa, the Levant, Indochina, and Madagascar. As Sarah Zimmerman rightly notes, they played crucial roles in assembling and disassembling French Empire, and provide a unique perspective that challenges French colonial readings not of this military institution but rather of life under colonialism. See Sarah Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries: West African Servicemen in French Colonial Conflicts, 1908–1962” (PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2011).
  • 4
    In addition to the First Indochina War, the tirailleurs fought in World War I, having, in the case of the latter, numbered approximately 165,000 West Africans, 170,000 Algerians, 60,000 Tunisians, and 24,000 Moroccans. See Alison S. Fell and Nina Wardleworth, “The Colour of War Memory: Cultural Representations of Tirailleurs Sénégalais,” Journal of War & Cultural Studies 9, no. 4 (2016): 320. As Myron Echenberg notes, “The Tirailleurs Sénégalais were unique in the colonial experience of the Western powers in Africa. Only France brought about an intense militarization of its African colonies. Only France instituted universal male conscription in peace as in war from 1912 until 1960. . . . What distinguished France from other powers was its determination to use the Tirailleurs Sénégalais extensively as an expeditionary force in every corner of the French empire, whether for purposes of conquest, occupation, or later, counterinsurgency. From these uses came still another, the defense of the mother country.” See Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; London: James Currey, 1991), 4.
  • 5
    Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 3.
  • 6
    I refer here to the Thiaroye massacre of 1944, when West African riflemen—read liberators of France— returned from Europe after four years of captivity, to be killed by their French officers after demanding the compensation they were owed. As Abdoulaye Bah has noted, the general public did not know about this tragedy until 1988, when the film Camp de Thiaroye by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène was released. It should be noted that the film was banned in France for seventeen years. I have chosen to mention Semène’s film in this brief footnote as it demonstrates art’s capacity to restitute, to unsettle and lift the dust that has intentionally been left to gather and occlude certain tarnishing events in European history. For more on the Thiaroye massacre, see Martin Mourre, “The Thiaroye massacre and its memory,” EHNE Digital Encyclopedia of European History website, https://ehne.fr/en/encyclopedia/themes/europe-europeans-and-world/colonial-and-post-colonial-memories/thiaroye-massacre-and-its-memories.
  • 7
    Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 102.
  • 8
    Ibid., 104. This camp was located in Fréjus.
  • 9
    Intense rain, mudslides, and flash floods meant that these men spent most of their time immersed, having “to stand or march in water, sometimes thigh-deep, for over twenty-four hours at a time.” As a result, they not only developed podiatric maladies, but also ingested contaminated water, which led to dysentery and other intestinal disorders, and developed beriberi brought on by poor nutrition. Ibid., 106.
  • 10
    Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, “The Indochina War, 1945–1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool,” Université du Québec à Montréal website, https://indochine.uqam.ca/en/historical-dictionary/223-casualties-indochina-war.html.
  • 11
    Goulli Zo, interview by Myron Echenberg, April 7, 1969; quoted in Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, xiii.
  • 12
    Anne Marie Niane, née Corea, was born in 1950 in Ho-chi-minh City (formerly Saigon). Her father came from Saint-Louis in Senegal and her mother was from Saigon, where her parents met when her father was a recruit in the French army. Niane was five years old when her family returned to Senegal. After completing primary and secondary school in Senegal, she studied in Paris from 1968 to 1974. She returned to Dakar in 1975 and is author of L’étranger et douze autres nouvelles (Paris: Hatier, 1985).
  • 13
    “Rememory” was first employed by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved as a process of actively revisiting and reconstructing a cultural past. Effectively summed up by Amanda Littke, rememory is “the active remembrance of a memory which allows for a comingling of the past and present, creating an alternate sense of reality for those who remember.” See Amanda Littke, “Morrison’s Magical Reality: Disrupting the Politics of Memory” (MA thesis, Oregon State University, 2010), https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/k930c243m.
  • 14
    Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers,” 26.
  • 15
    The First Indochina War ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. Evacuees were taken from Tonkin to Saigon, then Saigon to France, and only then to West Africa. See Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 117.
  • 16
    According to stipulations agreed upon at the Geneva Conference of April 26-July 21, 1954, the French were required to withdraw to south of the 17th parallel within three hundred days of the conference’s conclusion. During the countdown from July 21, 1954, the French military located, processed, and evacuated French forces and prisoners of war, soldiers’ Indochinese wives and children. Lan and Waly, too, faced a ticking clock.
  • 17
    As Justin Phan notes, Vietnamese women were often treated as concubines and mistresses and referred to by the colonial French as congaï, a derogatory term suggesting their “availability.” Phan, “Of Mothers & Fathers,” 30.
  • 18
    Karen Barad, “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come,” in Deconstruction and Science, special issue, Derrida Today 3, no. 2 (2010), 264.
  • 19
    Helen Molesworth, “And,” Idea Lab lecture series (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, June 30, 2022).
  • 20
    Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1993), xix.
  • 21
    Alex Halberstadt, Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020), 59.
  • 22
    The French military was obligated to increase monthly salaries of sub-Saharan infantrymen formally married to Indochinese women so these men could support their families. According to Sarah Zimmerman, colonial officers were required to put in formal requests through the military chain of command prior to receiving marriage certificates. Zimmerman, “Living Beyond Boundaries,” 117.
  • 23
    The Spectre has subsequently been included in the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 2022.
  • 24
    I am alluding here to nems, local spring rolls that are now considered a national dish. Nems were in fact brought to Dakar by Jean Gomis, himself the son of a French soldier and Vietnamese mother. Before weddings, Vietnamese women living in Dakar gather in one house to cook for two or three days, “marinating pork, rolling spring rolls, and reciting poetry.” Nellie Peyton, “How Spring Rolls Got to Dakar,” Slate, November 7, 2016, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2016/11/the-strange-story-of-how-spring-rolls-became-senegals-go-to-snack.html.

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