Understory, as Retold by Trinh Mai & Birds

Triton Museum of Art

May. 28, 2024 - Sep. 4, 2022

1505 Warburton Avenue
Santa Clara, 95050


In an effort to examine the refugee and immigrant experience, then and now, Trinh Mai renders the stories whose threads bind our witnessing of war, our will to survive the wounds they’ve planted, and our waking from the wreckage that calls forth inevitable growth.

Huddled in the thick forest, the understory is composed of an assortment of seedlings and saplings of young canopy trees. They persist in the understory sometimes for decades as juveniles, awaiting patiently for light to break in the forest overstory, which will offer them the sunlight that propels their growth into the canopy. This echoes what the ancestors have done for us through their sacrifices, bravery, and love—this compiled inherited strength to overcome the wars we face, and courage the which we arm ourselves for the battles to come.

This layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of the forest is where our people take cover during their escape from relentless wars. We find shelter in the understory. We conceal our stories when they are too much to bear. These are stories that lie beneath stories. These are the stories of growth and destruction, beauty and decay, trauma and strength that lives in us all at once. These are the stories of darkness, and the light who yields the power to pierce it.

Understory weaves we the people—the living history—into the forgone histories whose effects remain deeply rooted in humanity still. It tells of the inpouring of those fleeing oppression and the indwelling of an inherent resilience that stirs wildly within us, even when trudging in the darkness of wars, personal and political. These are the stories of us—the ones that have been seeded in hardship and healing, in persecution and perseverance, in displacement, despair and determination—these that inspire compassion and custodial responsibility.

This exhibition acknowledges the wars that have always been. It waters that which has seeped itself deep into the soil upon which we now stand, and harvests the pulp before folding it into the fissures of the fractured, with the hope of cultivating new courage.

Remembering our predecessors, those who have fought alongside us, and the ones in mid-flight, Understory honors our existence as an enduring people.

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