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Pink donut boxes are canvas for artist portraying kids of Cambodian-American refugees

Michelle Sou in a silkscreened portrait on a donut box by artist Phung Huynh.
Self Help Graphics & Art
Michelle Sou in a silkscreened portrait on a donut box by artist Phung Huynh.

Los Angeles is a city dotted with donut shops, many of them mom-and-pop operations run by immigrants from Cambodia and tucked away in strip malls across Southern California.

Right now, artist Phung Huynh is standing in Donut Star, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park. It's is an unpretentious oasis of cheap coffee, lottery tickets and a staggering array of freshly baked donuts.

Huynh has stopped here for a sugery pick-me-up – and some artistic inspiration. Her solo show, entitled Donut (W)hole, recently opened at Self Help Graphics and Art. It's a homage to the Cambodian immigrants known as "Khmericans" who survived the aftermath of warfare and genocide.

"The exhibition is also a celebration of the Cambodian stories told through the lens of 1st and 2nd generation Khmericans who grew up in their family's donut shop," the artist writes in the exhibition notes.

Huynh, a bubbly 44-year-old with black bangs sweeping across her face, created these portraits first by drawing her subjects in a style reminiscent of Pop Art, then silkscreening them, along with vintage family photographs, onto the pink cardboard donut boxes that have become emblematic of donut shops run by Cambodian-Americans. "These donut shops represent a cultural space where refugees and immigrants reshape their lives in the process of negotiating, assimilating and becoming American," Huynh writes.

Artist Phung Huynh with her parents on a family trip to Cambodia.
/ Phung Huynh
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Phung Huynh
Artist Phung Huynh with her parents on a family trip to Cambodia.

Although Huynh was trained as an illustrator, and most of her work emphasizes her skill in painting and drawing, the donut box series reflects an evolution in her use of photographs, which draws on family history and traditions that range from deeply spiritual to traumatic.

"I have a very complicated relationship to photographs and portraits because when we left, we couldn't bring any photos with us," she explains, showing framed copies of the resettlement photos taken of her father, mother, grandparents and siblings in a Vietnamese refugee camp. "And we use photographs to worship our ancestors."

Artist Phung Huynh
Noe Montes / Phung Huynh
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Phung Huynh
Artist Phung Huynh

Huynh's family did not run donut shops when she was growing up, although her brother currently owns one in Houston. Her parents worked in a garment factory when they first arrived in Los Angeles in 1981.

"And they couldn't speak English," Huynh recalls. But, she says, they became close to a women on the factory floor she now thinks of as a grandmother. "My abuelita, Nellie Pavone, was a production manager, and she stood up for my parents and helped them. My mom would call her 'mama.' She's our Mexican grandmother, and she would call us her Chinese, you know, grandchildren."

Pavone noticed Huynh's artistic talent as a child, and encouraged her parents to allow her to attend art school, Huynh says. Now, Huynh is an associate professor of art at Los Angeles Valley College and an artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles County's Office of Immigrant Affairs. She's particularly proud of the way her work has been displayed in numerous civic sites all over the city, from the Los Angeles Zoo to Los Angeles County's USC Medical Center.

Ratana Kim in a silkscreened portrait on a pink donut box by artist Phung Huynh.
/ Self Help Graphics & Art
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Self Help Graphics & Art
Ratana Kim in a silkscreened portrait on a pink donut box by artist Phung Huynh.

Phung Huynh's parents eventually built their own business with the support of their community, and the artist wants to celebrate their resilience, bravery and entrepreneurship. Still, she's uninterested in perpetuating a glossy, mythologized version of the American Dream.

"There's a lot of struggle and pain," she says of the Khmerican immigrants who built their small businesses. "I feel that for a lot of survivors, specifically of the Khmer Rouge genocide, there's a lot of guilt. There's a lot of guilt for being able to come to United States and leaving family behind. There are a lot of family back home who weren't able to come."

Meanwhile, the kids who grew up in these donut shops — because there wasn't the money for afterschool care — were taunted, and harassed by their peers, Huynh says. Recently, one donut shop family she knows were threatened in their own store by white supremacists.

"When generational trauma is not even a generation away from experiencing what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Afghanistan are undergoing right now," she says, "That's what I'm interested in exploring. But donuts matter. Even a fleeting pleasure — that's good. That's what trauma teaches you. Like, pleasure and joy are fundamental."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.