Antonius Bui is probably a name that you have heard recently in the Houston art community. They are busy dancing, creating, and collaborating joyfully throughout our city, all while shaking the tables that need to be shook. Bui, who was born and raised in The Bronx, moved to Houston briefly before pursuing a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Bui is now back in the H and has exhibited at Lawndale Art Center, performed at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (while in residence), and held programs at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.
Byline Houston: Let’s start at the process of your visual artwork — paper-cutting. I want to know everything!
Antonius Bui: All of the portraits that I do are hand cut and treated with spray paint afterwards. The first hand-cut paper piece that I did is actually hanging in my Houston Center for Contemporary Craft studio. It’s just a really crappy tree! I was so proud of it back then. It’s so nice to see it side by side to the grand pieces that I’m making now as a reminder of, “You ain’t shit. Stay humble!”
The reason behind cutting paper has changed a lot for me throughout these six plus years. It started out with a lot of frustration around the 2-D surface. I had my first art class in the Texas education system — there was such a concentration on more traditional, western forms of art expression. Cutting paper was really a way for me to slowly enter into the world of sculpture, organizing programs, and expanding my whole art practice in general.
Byline Houston: Right. You clearly enjoy putting public programs together along with your art practice. Bringing people together in such an intimate way is such a joy, I’m sure, but also seems very intimidating! What makes you eager to organize?
Bui: I realized that being only a studio artist wasn’t enough for me. I want to continuously redefine art so that it can be a true reflection of where we are as people. More than ever, right now is the time when we need more community activists, artists, politicians, etcetera to collaborate.
You know, I recently found out that my dad was the founder of the Vietnamese organization in The Bronx. As I develop more into my artistic practice, I’ve realized how much I’ve learned from my parents, who started creating spaces in churches for Vietnamese Americans to gather, to learn English, and to just play.
Byline Houston: Do you find it to be challenging?
Bui: I have to say, the fear is definitely real considering that these programs often require particular resources and institutional support. I am very grateful to have the support of Lawndale Art Center and to be a resident at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. I was able to use these two institutions as launching pads to really spearhead programs that I believe in and to bring up other folks.
In this moment, I view paper as a metaphor for history, carbon space, narratives that are constantly forgotten, bleached, erased. I want to make space for that. I want the shadows that are cast from the hand-cut portraits to dance on the walls of institutions that have constantly excluded us. Reclaim the white walls!
Byline Houston: As someone that has traveled around various art communities in the country, and speaking of art institutions and the white ass walls (literally and figuratively), let’s talk about it!
Bui: Honestly, returning to Houston after seven years, and now as an adult, I am so eternally grateful with how quickly the Houston community has embraced me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the constant support and willingness to collaborate and have hard conversations. This city seems to be open to experimentation. But at the same time, the Houston art scene does not reflect the diversity of the city whatsoever. I think that there is such an elitist and classist idea of art that’s perpetuated throughout the institutions here. Is it the dependence on oil and gas? Are the oil and gas daddies and their wives the board members? How does their influence and money control how the art scene is operated here? Who has access to the art and art education? I’m still figuring all of this out.
Byline Houston: Well that’s THAT! I completely agree!
Bui: Yeah! I, and many artists in Houston, expect every art institution to recognize their flaws, confront their systems, and to make active efforts to right their wrongs.
Byline Houston: So what’s next? What should we be forward to seeing from Antonius Bui?
Bui: Well, I was recently rejected from Yale, but it’s all good! That was the first moment where I didn’t feel any sense of unworthiness or shame by rejection. I’m just getting to the point where the validation of an institution no longer warps my idea of self worth and self love. It wasn’t meant to be, and that’s okay!
I’ll actually be going to Baltimore to lecture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The MFA sculpture program contacted me and asked me if I could lecture to the MFA students, and I was like, “Boo, I don’t have an MFA!” and she was just like, “That’s alright!” So bizarre!
Byline Houston: First of all, that’s amazing! Congrats! But about this rejection, you apply to A LOT of residencies, grants, etcetera. Do you have advice for artists out there that are maybe intimidated by rejection?
Bui: Oh, it’s hard, don’t get me wrong! Especially as an artist, where resources and opportunities are already scarce. One day you just realized how much talent there is out there. Every single opportunity will have SO many great applicants. At the end of the day, it’s not really about your work or practice, it’s just a matter of timing.
Now, my resume might look great, but you have to see my rejection folder! I have a folder of hundreds of rejection letters! I once had a friend that had a goal to get 100 rejection letters in a year. That was so beautiful to me. Change to focus.
But you have to put yourself out there. When you do, don’t forget to celebrate yourself.