Still from The Specter of Ancestors Becoming_Andrew Nguyen Young

Still from The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Courtesy of the artist.

The most prominent “ancestors” in Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s powerful new video work at SFMOMA — the fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons we meet on four large screens — aren’t Nguyen’s ancestors. And they aren’t some long-ago people who once inhabited Nguyen’s native Vietnam. 

No, they’re modern actors and actresses who — in the moment of Nguyen’s filming — are voicing scenes that re-live one of the most wrenching and little-known periods of Vietnam’s history: French colonialism and warfare that brought West African soldiers to the South Asian country, where they started mixed-race families with Vietnamese women — only to force many of these children and mothers to leave Vietnam for Senegal.

The cultural upheaval uprooted scores of people in the 1940s and 1950s — and its impact is still being felt today in West Africa and Vietnam. In Nguyen’s video work, called The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, we see reconstructed scenes of confrontation, finger-pointing, mistrust, and love that once drove these Senegalese-Vietnamese families to make life-changing decisions. Were they the right decisions? Nguyen lets the actors and actresses, all of whom are descendants of these Senegalese-Vietnamese families, sort out the questions. All the while, Nguyen shows, on one of the four screens, the writer of each scene reading the script’s lines (three of the scenes were written by Senegalese-Vietnamese writers). All the while, Nguyen shows glimpses of photos and footage that really are from the 1940s, which reveal on-the-ground realities of African soldiers in Vietnam and on-the-ground realities of African-Vietnamese unions.

Race is a subtext of The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, as with soldiers who are deemed “French” but consider themselves African and are subjected to cruel double standards, and as with the children of these mixed-race unions who — in West Africa — try to reconcile their multiple identities. Gender is also a subtext of The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, as with Nguyen’s spotlight on women who had to choose whether to join their African husbands and leave everything behind, and as with Vietnamese women in West Africa who have to face the consequences of those very decisions.

The Specter of Ancestors Becoming is in SFMOMA’s “Soft Power” exhibit, which features 20 international artists, many of them commissioned to do the presented works on display.

SFMOMA says the exhibit is “about the ways in which artists deploy art to explore their roles as citizens and social actors,” and Nguyen’s role is really as an artist, filmmaker, and historian who tells stories that delve, he says, into “counter memory and post memory.”

“My work is about memory — in the broadest terms of how memory is defined, and how we understand history and how we’re taught about history as a kind of memory. It’s an institutional memory that’s handed down to us,” Nguyen tells SF Weekly in a Skype interview from Ho Chi Minh City. “I’m particularly interested in the erasures of some of those histories and memories — and a lot of these erasures are caused by the trauma of colonialism and the aftershocks of colonialism.”

Originally commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, The Specter of Ancestors Becoming is everything great film can be: It’s visually sumptuous, with some of the four screens using slow motion to spotlight related scenes; it has writing that’s poetic and profound; it features actors and actresses who inhabit their roles with a deepness that’s clear to see; and it’s illuminating — connecting history to the present day, and revealing a diaspora that has been mostly hidden from view. Who was doing the hiding? Sometimes, Nguyen discovered, it was the descendants themselves — people of Senegalese-Vietnamese ancestry who didn’t want to talk about their families’ past and the long trail of colonialism, hurt, adjustment, and reconciliation. In this way, the “ancestors” in the work’s title can be thought of as those finally speaking up about the facts of their lives — even if those facts reveal a rough past that some would rather forget.

“These are stories that aren’t acknowledged by the dominant narrative, and by histories. Some of the stories weren’t even acknowledged by their parents,” says Nguyen. “It’s a community that very few people know about. But it’s interesting because once you start talking about it with people, they say, ‘Oh, my grandmother’s friend is half-Vietnamese.’ Or, ‘My nephew married someone who’s a quarter Vietnamese.’ There’s an invisibility there. Because the community has been there for so long and they’re in their fourth or fifth generation now. They’ve been there so long that you can’t tell they’re Vietnamese. And because no one really talks about that history, so there are layers of invisibility that are happening. But once you start asking around, it’s amazing how large that community really is.”

“Soft Power”

Through Feb. 17 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25, 415-357-4000,