This portrait of Nhi is the result of an ongoing friendship and conversation with the Bahnar community in Vietnam. In 2015, by happenstance, Tessa gained access to this world through an invitation from a Vietnamese gallerist, who encouraged her to learn about the nineteen ethnic groups indigenous to the Kon Tum Central Highlands region. Among them are the Bahnar people.
Upon her visit and welcome, Tessa was drawn to many aspects of their way of life. Over several years and multiple trips, she built a rapport with the community. In particular, a close friendship formed with a Bahnar woman called Banh, who is also a keen photographer.
To learn about Bahnar culture and history is to learn about the impacts of French colonialism; the two are entwined. Since the 1850s, the arrival of French Catholic Missionaries into the Central Mountains saw a complex chapter begin. Through their presence came ethnographers, whose fieldworks photographically documented the ethnic groups of the region, referred to as Montagnards; French for “people of the mountain”.
Banh’s passion for preserving Bahnar culture has led her to deeply value the ethnographers’ historic black and white photography, documenting her people as far back as a century ago. It is a somber paradox though, common for indigenous communities, how such photographs – taken by the colonizer – are over time repatriated back to the community to ironically evolve into treasured relics that can preserve or even regain memory and culture.
Banh explained to Tessa the cyclic history of these photographs and the mixed feelings with which she regards them. While most are coldly ‘documentarian’ in their aesthetic, some are romantic, suggesting an affinity for the Bahnar people among some ethnographers. Yet, the images were all still ‘taken’ by outsiders.
Having been made aware of this, Tessa – an outsider – proposed a collaboration whereby Banh photographs whomever she likes from her village, forming the key reference imagery for a subsequent portrait that Tessa paints. With a high regard for the elders among her village, Banh chose to photograph Nhi, aged 96 at the time.