Antonius Bui, by their own definition, is a hot mess.
They smile when I explain how awkward it is for a writer who started her career as a high school English teacher to refer to an individual with a plural pronoun, no matter how much I respect one’s right to be gender nonbinary.
“It’s definitely grammatically confusing,” Bui acknowledged recently, chuckling at Lawndale Art Center, where their show “yêu em dài lâu (me love you long time)” is on view. They were wearing a tattered-looking top designed by their friend, Noel Puello, with almost as many cuts as their own paper tapestry-portraits.
No matter how many times I type it, argh.
Still, you can’t not like Bui, a cheerful 26-year-old resident at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which is just across the street from Lawndale. Ask where they are from, and they have a sassy response: the planet Jupiter.
“I’m always interested in what it helps to be told that I’m Vietnamese,” they said. “So I say planet Jupiter to dispel that. But I did grow up in the Bronx, in a lovely Italian Catholic neighborhood, around most of my cousins. All my aunts and uncles, and my parents, had four kids each. So it was always a party after school.”
The artist’s parents were refugees who worked in the textile industry in New York before moving to Houston about 12 years ago. Bui went to Clements High School and spent the first two years of college at the University of Houston, studying chemistry to appease their family.
They ended up earning a degree at Maryland Institute College of Art and have been residency-hopping since then, with gigs in Baltimore, Vermont, Tulsa, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The Houston residency ends in February; then it’s on to fellowships in Saratoga, N.Y.; San Francisco; and Nashville, Tenn.
They ask as many questions as they answer, which makes a standard Q&A as awkward as the pronouns. But here’s a bit more about Bui.
Q: When did you realize you were queer?
A: I realized I was different my first day in pre-K. I was so afraid of using the bathroom, and being surrounded by boys who were trained to be confident and bullyish. I remember holding in my urine for the entire day, and crying. But this affection toward people who don’t identify as female came in the sixth grade, on the playground, when I was attracted to boys and had this weird jealousy because they ran faster than me. That was really confusing.
Q: What do your tattoos represent?
A: I get a tattoo for every residency. I view it as a living archive. As I get older, I embrace my tattoos and fashion and the way I adorn myself. Coming to terms with my own gender was definitely a pathway to this body of work. Most of the models here have influenced the way I present myself and engage with the world. I wouldn’t be the fearless bitch I am without them.
A co-worker of my aunt’s came to the show and said, ‘Whoa, you’re really outspoken for someone from an Asian household.’ I embrace the term ‘slaysian.’ It’s understanding that Asian-American Pacific Islanders are not here to fit your stereotype: We are fearless, outspoken, unapologetically ourselves and not afraid to critique institutions or a city.
It’s so important for artists never to silence themselves, or to hold back. For instance, I’m constantly questioning, why is there only one black artist in the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft’s “CraftTexas” show? Why has there not been a black artist in residence there in eight years, possibly more? Why do the arts in Houston not reflect the city’s diversity? … I want to see more people of color in positions of power in Houston, and more artists of color as gatekeepers and curators, challenging this very archaic idea of art history. I am definitely going to tremble from my mouth, but I am not afraid.
Q: Tell me about your journey into making these cut-paper tapestries.
A: It’s all hand-drawn and hand-cut. I did the first one six years ago. It’s influenced by my environment and thinking about the tradition of cut paper that’s visible among most Asian cultures; and then figuring out ways to make it contemporary and relevant again for me. It began with the encouragement of my professors and peers. It was a way to deal with anxiety as well, to reflect on things I needed to process … because it’s so meditative.
Q: How did you learn to cut paper?
A: I’m constantly learning. Yesterday I had to come in and fix one of the pieces. I don’t mind what some people would call tears — it’s just natural deterioration. My art is as flawed as me, which is extremely flawed because we live in a very, very flawed world. But I’m still learning about the physics. I purposefully ripped this one, but there are also many mistakes.
Q: How long does it take to create one of these? You must go through a lot of X-acto blades.
A: I completed this body of work in almost four months; I started it when I moved back to Houston in August. I buy X-actos 100 at a time, and I’ve learned to switch the blade more often — every 10 minutes or so — to save my wrist.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m applying to grad schools … Cut paper comes in waves because it’s so time-intensive. I’m only able to do a body of work like this once a year, or once every two or three years. I’m moving now toward performance and research-based work. My work is all over the place. I started out with printmaking and fell in love with fibers. I love reading poetry. I really want to explore music. I’m starting to study Vietnamese dance, and I’m going to be incorporating silk fans and thinking about how Vietnamese dance is so communal. I’m trying to concentrate on the individual dancer and break away from the collective. I feel like my entire life has been a performance, and it’s interesting to finally dive into performance art.