Tuong-Vi Trinh, '19

May 3, 2019
Senior infuses her art with social justice themes

Each of the three large prints depicts a photo of a milk jug—one containing a rat; a second, a sailing ship; and a third, plastic army soldiers. Tuong-Vi Trinh, ’19, described her senior art thesis, displayed in the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art, as a response to a white supremacist video of white men chugging milk.

The video attempted to demonstrate white racial superiority based on a genetic ability to digest lactose.

“After watching the video, I had to act,” said Trinh, a first-generation Vietnamese-American who is majoring in leadership studies and visual and media arts practice. “I used the social science skills learned in my leadership studies classes to compile data about racially based lactose intolerance.

“Then I superimposed the data on a large world map to show the absurdity of white supremacy and how white nationalists have manipulated data. In reality, some other ethnic groups, including people in East Africa, digest milk better than white people.”

The idea for her senior art thesis arose from her research. Trinh ordered milk jugs and got to work.

“I wanted to use the milk jug art project to convey the absurdity and gruesomeness of white supremacy,” she said. “The rat in the milk jug symbolizes the plagues and diseases which have helped advance colonialism. Likewise, the sailing ship represents colonial power. The toy soldiers are devoid of humanity and signify the greed of colonial conquests.”

Trinh said her leadership studies and arts majors have given her the tools she needs to address social justice issues through art.

“The Jepson School of Leadership Studies speaks with a social justice language of morality and philosophy, backed by social science,” she said. “Art speaks with a visual language. My challenge has been to combine these two languages.”

Trinh said she added a third language—the language of computers—to create the second piece of her senior art thesis, a video game titled “Escape.” The game leads players through 35 rooms in a bunker built to withstand a world collapsing as a result of environmental degradation. Despite the game’s name, players can’t escape the bunker or the consequences of ecological ruin.

“The video drew from my Jepson experiences studying social justice themes of environmental degradation, disaster capitalism, and colonialism,” Trinh said.

In crafting the prints and the video that comprise her senior thesis, Trinh said she consulted with her thesis advisor, Brittany Nelson, on the art and with leadership studies professor Dr. Terry Price on the narration, framing it from a philosophical viewpoint.

Trinh said she came to University of Richmond knowing she wanted to major in leadership studies—a desire confirmed when she took Leadership and the Humanities with Dr. Peter Kaufman her first year on campus.

Later, as part of her Jepson internship, she built a website for the Scholars Latino Initiative, a program created by Kaufman to provide higher education opportunities to North Carolina and Virginia Latino students. This project helped her realize the power of combining visual and narrative storytelling in support of social justice, Trinh said.

An uncle fostered her early love of art by enrolling her in art classes and encouraging her to paint and draw. Still, Trinh said it wasn’t until she took Introduction to Drawing with Erling Sjovold her sophomore year that she decided to major in art.

“Most people think of art as arising from a creative ethos,” Trinh said. “But for me, art is very methodical—it’s an experiment in trial and error. I do a lot of research before creating a piece. The Jepson School gave me the background to research and pursue social justice issues through my art.”