Great Meadows Foundation uplifts Queer artists alongside Queer Kentucky: Vinhay Keo

by John Brooks

Visual artists are a vital part of Kentucky’s Queer community. Thanks to the Great Meadows Foundation, which was launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and  philanthropist Al Shands (1928-2021) in order to critically strengthen and support visual  art in Kentucky, Queer Kentucky will be featuring interviews with a number of these  artists.

Vinhay Keo (b. 1994) is an interdisciplinary visual artist, performer, and researcher  who is based in Los Angeles. Keo utilizes photography, video, installation, performance,  sculpture, and writing to navigate hauntological framework of historical residue — the  effects of intergenerational trauma. His work traverses through the legacy of the  Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge Genocide, French Colonialism in Indochina, and queer  futurity/temporality as a cosmos of gravitational forces that inundate our contemporary  lives with the specter of violence.  

He is a recent MFA graduate from the California Institute of the Arts (2020) and  received his BFA from the Kentucky College of Art + Design at Spalding University  (2016). He is a recipient of the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Fellowship, Louisville Visual Art’s  Rising Star Award, and a Great Meadows Foundation grant. He has participated in  various residency programs including Yale at Norfolk, Anderson Ranch Art Center, and  Tropical Lab in Singapore.  

As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, how do you identify?  

I identified as gay throughout my adolescence. I am a child of the 90s and came into  my own in the 2000s. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) were the sexual  orientations I was most familiar with at the time. My green mind knew little beyond the fact that I was a kid who felt attractions toward others of the same sex, yet the term “homosexual” felt out-of-date. By default, Gay was the most appropriate label for me. When I moved to Louisville to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in visual arts, I  collided with an array of people who introduced me to other formative ideologies. Queer/ness offers me a framework that transgresses beyond gender and sexuality. It rejects essentialist views of identity that reduces people into sub-categories that neatly fit within the larger heteronormative hegemony. All of this is to say that I identify as  queer.  

What is your relationship to Kentucky, either as a child or  an adult, or both? And where do you live now?  

I was born and raised in Cambodia until the age of ten. My immediate family (mother,  older brother, and myself) immigrated to the United States in 2004 and settled in Bowling Green, Kentucky. An inevitable question that frequently arises is “Why did you move to Kentucky?” This is a seemingly innocuous inquiry but it often fails to, at best, realize that I was a child with limited choices and, at worst, it highlights the ignorance  of the inquirer. Like many of us, I am a byproduct of history, specifically the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge Genocide. My great aunt and uncle were refugees who settled in Kentucky and became my family’s lifeline. This is how I came to spend my adolescent years in Bowling Green.

I later moved to Louisville where I became a first generation college graduate. After six years in Louisville, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Master of Fine Arts. Los Angeles is currently where I reside but I am not a geographically rooted person, perhaps not yet. I am hesitant to call any particular place “home;” however, Kentucky holds a special place in my life as it is where my immediate family lives and it is a place that shaped me.

From show American Appetite

Do you think your Queerness facilitated (or hindered, if it is  the case) your path to becoming an artist?  

The question of whether or not Queerness facilitated or hindered my path to becoming an artist posits a binary that I have been wrestling with both in terms of how to engage and how to expand beyond the limitations of the question. A path, in this figurative  sense, suggests that a road has already been paved, yet my experience is closer to  stumbling through an overgrown field hacking towards an unknown destination.

Similarly to those who come from an immigrant background, my mother wanted me to  pursue a steadfast career in medicine, law, or some other field that ensures upward  economic mobility. While art was not necessarily on her list of possible careers for me,  my mother was happy for me to make a choice that extended beyond her survival  imagination having survived a genocide. This is not to say that I chose to be an artist  as a form of rebellion against societal expectations – or a rejection of them – but rather  that I could not imagine myself in those other careers. I pursued art with little to no prior formal education or training – no one in my family was an artist, I could barely name any famous artists let alone one who looks like me or came from a similar  background, and so on. I chose to be an artist before I even knew what an artist was. Like queerness, art carved out a space and time for me to come into my own.  

Describe your work and your practice.  

I describe my art practice through the saying of “A jack of all trades, master of none.”  Although, the original phrase is closer to “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” I am more of a generalist rather than a  specialist. I have considered that this trait is possibly a survival strategy resulting from  growing up as a chameleon and needing to be a mirror to fulfill others’ expectations.  My art practice is one of interdisciplinary play through photography, video, installation,  performance, sculpture, and writing.

Upward Mobility, 2019
American Appetite

The various media offers me different modes to  play and learn and, at times, re-learn how to play. History is a central theme within my  work, whether it is the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, French Colonialism,  etc. I am interested in the notion of ‘historical residue’ and its relationship to hauntology, a Jacques Derrida concept. Hauntology situates the specter as the subject —it is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive. Simply put, I think a lot about  ghosts and spirits. The Khmer Rouge regime killed nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population between 1975-1979. The extremist group disproportionately targeted artists, musicians, dancers, etc., killing 90 percent of its practitioners and nearly wiping  out the cultural canon. My artist practice contends with what it means to be an artist in  the shadow of near-total erasure. How do I carry forth cultural and ideological practices that can extend beyond essentialist forms of survival and situates other forms of  being?  

Who are some of your Queer heroes, either in the art world or  perhaps from elsewhere? Who or what inspires you?  

This is a short list of artists in their own fields that I adore for their works. There are  many others but these creators are ones who are currently on my mind.  

From the art world: Danh Võ —his exhibition at Guggenheim Museum in 2018, a  comprehensive survey of his work titled “Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away,” simply took  my breath away. Didier William —his work is richly mesmerizing and defies beyond  traditional media. I have had the privilege to study with him and his teachings continue  to challenge me. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, specifically, a piece titled “‘Untitled’ (Perfect Lovers)” (1991). The work is quietly poetic and fiercely tender.  

From literature, Ocean Vuong. He writes with surgical precision dissecting the English  language in sublime candor. James Baldwin.Utterly prolific. Christopher Isherwood,  specifically, his novel titled A Single Man. Plus, Tom Ford’s film adaptation is a gem. 

From music, Years & Years / Olly Alexander. Their music will always make me dance.  Frank Ocean. Channel Orange is my studio mood! Troye Sivan. A skinny legend.  

Perhaps, like a lot of other people, my family (blood and chosen) inspires me. But, also,  mundane life also inspires me: an evening walk through a park, making curry for dinner,  or watering my house plants.  

What does it mean to you to be a Queer artist, and how does it  affect your work?  

In a sense, I am a Queer artist and I am also an artist who is queer. Queer/ness  complicates reductive desires to be socially legible. I have been cloaked under many  social identities (i.e., Cambodian, American, Asian, immigrant, Gay, Person of Color,  brown, poor) and queer/ness allows me to fully encompass my intersectional identity.  In a culture that craves visibility and representation, I am weary of such desire,  especially as a brown person. Visibility and representation under white supremacy is a  trap. To borrow Édouard Glissant’s idea, my work demands a “right to opacity.” Queer/ ness gives me room to play with and pick apart complex ideas without reducing my  work to any clear, legible forms. I love to plant seeds of ideas within my work and leave  people questioning. 

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?  

When I was 20 years old, I did an art residency where I was in a community of artists  who took their role very seriously. I was battling imposter syndrome but it was an  environment that challenged me like never before. In the end, I left the program feeling  like I could, in fact, pursue art. Being an artist allows me to be a life-long learner and to  indulge in my curiosity. Art is a form of communication — a coded language of sorts –  that suits me best. I love a fun puzzle.  

sampot (cotton), vegan leather, “Kampuchea Yellow”, “Colonial Red”.

Are there any particular works or experiences that clarified that  choice in your mind?  

I never had a lightbulb moment but John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation  (2012) is the only artwork I have encountered that made me cry. I love artworks that  haunt me.  

What would you say to someone who asks about the visual art  scene in Kentucky, particularly through the lens of Queerness?  

I want to acknowledge that my experience of Kentucky is limited to my exposure within Bowling Green and Louisville; however, I would encourage people to seek out the queer, the weird, and the peripheral gems that exists in unconventional spaces.  

What does Kentucky’s art scene need to be better?  

I am not sure about a scene but I know that we need to invest in marginalized  communities, champion BIPOC leaders, support community organizers, say GAY, fight for reproductive rights, protect trans folks, make more spaces accessible. Art will not save us. We need art to challenge us.  

What’s next for you?  

I’m living life with my partner and our dog and learning to relish in the mundanities of  daily life. I have also been diving back into leisure reading and listening to endless  podcasts – they are also forms of research for me. The pandemic disrupted my ability  to create work so I’m getting back on the metaphorical bike again. I’m excited to  create new artworks for an upcoming exhibition with Moremen Gallery in Louisville later  year.  

Anything else?  

Don’t forget to dance and move your body once in a while. 

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