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Kim Sandara on Being a Visual Artist & a Bi/Queer Lao/Vietnamese Woman

Kim (she/they) is a second-generation Bisexual & Queer Lao/Vietnamese American. She is a visual artist, born and raised in Falls Church, VA. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY producing art and curating exhibits with a current focus on exposing the history of the Secret War and the bombs in Laos. She's been featured on the Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Visit their website to see their work:

Kim at Fort Stanton Recreation Center Sculpture in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chanel Adikuono)

Kim talks to us about their latest visual art and community projects, their identity as a Bi woman, being shocked when learning about the Secret War that took place in Laos as a child, and navigating the world as an artist.


1. Tell us about yourself (what work you're currently doing).

I work in a lot of museums as my day job! Right now I’m working in Visitor Services for the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I’m excited to be in my first NYC museum job. When I’m not at my day job, I am a graphic novelist for the Asian Pacific Institute (API) Domestic Violence Resource Project. We’re working on a survivor centered story involving a queer/trans Lao and Bengali character. I am also a volunteer graphic designer for Welcome to Chinatown, a NYC based group donating their design skills, canvassing work, translation work, and fundraising to help keep small Manhattan Chinatown businesses afloat during the pandemic.

I am a visual artist currently working on two big projects:

The 270 Million Project is a commitment to create 270 ink paintings resembling

Rorschach tests, listening to only Lao music. I started this project in July 2020. These pieces explore my relationship to being a Lao American: the longing to understand my roots and the conflict of being American and Lao. Each painting represents 1 million American cluster bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War.

I’ve also made a commitment to donate sales proceeds to two very important non-profits. I will be donating $100 of the first 135 painting sales to Legacies of Wars, a non-profit working on advocacy, education and funding the removal of unexploded bombs currently still in the country. The next $100 from each of the remaining 135 painting sales will go to COPE, a facility which aids in physical therapy for the thousands of people affected by the bombs after the war. Ideally, the pieces are in a grid display which echoes the idea of maps used to clear out the cluster bombs. With each sale there will be missing parts to the grid. Each missing spot represents the impact a community can have on solving a problem if they come together. This work speaks to intergenerational trauma, the immigrant/refugee family experience, war, identity and resilience.

"These pieces explore my relationship to being a Lao American: the longing to understand my roots and the conflict of being American and Lao. Each painting represents 1 million American cluster bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. "

I am also working on a graphic novel on my coming out story as a bisexual, queer woman (I had not identified as non-binary in this story or when I started to write it). In my adolescence until I was 18, I used internal world building and alter egos to feel less lonely in the closet. It did not occur to me that I created all of these stories to comfort myself and help me process my emotions until I was a young adult. I am working on this story to add to the representation needed of greyspace when it comes to being in the LGBTQ+ community as a person of color. The story is not completely cheerful or depressing but it explores the complexities of coming into an identity. I plan to give a portion of each book sale to combat the issue of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness in the US.

Kim's mom visiting one of their exhibits displaying her 270 Million Project. (Photo from @kimthediamond)

2. How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)?

I’m from the DMV (Washington, DC/Maryland/Virginia), specifically from NOVA (Northern Virginia) and proudly grew up near the Eden Center (a well known neighborhood Vietnamese shopping center developed in the 1970’s).

I am Lao and Vietnamese. My dad is Lao and my mom also came from Laos but her dad is Vietnamese. I have always identified closer with Lao culture because I grew up closer to my dad’s family. Although there were plenty of Vietnamese people in my community, the culture never felt as relatable. It’s probably because Laos is influenced by India and Vietnam is influenced by China. These are two mega-power countries in Asia with vastly different cultures. I hope to explore more of my Vietnamese identity once I give myself more time to immerse in Lao culture.

"I still identify closely to the conditioning of being a woman but I’m also aware that I am genderqueer--not exactly aligning to one gender or another. "

I also identify as Bisexual and Queer, as in: I am attracted to people within my own gender and other genders. Bi does not mean binary. There are so many gender identities out there! Cis men are as attractive to me as a 4 piece chicken nugget meal, quickly satisfying and never lasting. When I turned 27, I came out as non-binary. I still identify closely to the conditioning of being a woman but I’m also aware that I am genderqueer--not exactly aligning to one gender or another. Sometimes I feel genderless. I find that my personality is pretty androgynous.

3. What causes or issues in the US / world affecting the Southeast Asian community are you passionate about, would like to see change or more advocacy in?

I am passionate about removing the Secret War Era bombs from present day Laos. I want to teach people the history because it has been hidden from the American public for decades. There are so many histories that were also probably hidden and I would like to start to learn them by first learning my own. This issue is near to my heart because my parents are refugees from the Vietnam War.

I learned about bombs in Laos when I was little. My dad always told me his refugee story of swimming across the Mekong River to get to a Thai Refugee camp. I never thought of my parents as refugees though because I thought all immigrants went through things like this. Both of my parents always warned me about the bombs and explained that’s why we don’t take trips back to Laos. It’s understandable to not want to visit a country you fled from. I only found out Laos is not just a bombed country but currently still the most bombed country in all of human history per capita. That fact baffled me.

I want people to know Laos still needs help removing the bombs from a war they were never supposed to be in. The CIA took advantage of the people and land and they kept the history of this war secret for nearly two decades after it happened. No one knew much about Lao or Hmong, Mien, Khmu or any other ethnic SEA group’s refugees coming from that area. Everything about how no one knew of my ethnicity or cultural background where I grew up made sense when I learned more about the Secret War. Secret War was a bombing campaign on Laos run by the CIA during the Vietnam War. They used Hmong soldiers to fight the Vietcong in this war and then immediately abandoned them to fend themselves from the ethnic cleansing genocide attempted by the communist Lao government after the war. America accepted Hmong and Lao refugees but never gave them much visibility or tools to succeed in America. America even went as far as returning Hmong refugees to Laos to be massacred but these things stay out of American history books. I want my voice to be heard in American history. I want people to know what happened and what happens in the land my parents fled from. It was also the first land majorly bombed by the USA, which would become a blueprint for how America interrupts other foreign affairs and continues to bomb poor countries and supply weapons to initiate more violence.

4. What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?

I grew up in a working class immigrant family household. I didn't always have my own space. I didn't always have a set of present parents to support or listen to my needs. I was raised by my grandparents, who only spoke Lao so even then there was a language barrier. It was easy to feel disconnected in my home. It was how I experienced diaspora. The “American Dream” took time with my parents away and the American schooling system took my mother tongue away along with knowledge about my own identity’s history. I’m only reconnecting to these roots in my 20’s. College was a blessing and a curse because I got to come out there but also experienced so much anxiety and depression that comes with the fear of coming out. It’s life changing. It’s scary to be different. The world I grew up in barely understood my ethnicity. I barely understood my place in my ethnicity. So, without feeling grounded to anything, it was hard for me to imagine a nice world were I could be safe existing openly as queer. It’s hard to say I overcame these things because they are simply a part of my existence. I am privileged to have time to reconnect to my roots and happy I get to be alive as an openly queer person but these dangers still exist for my identity and the history I come from is still largely unknown by the American public. It took my mom years to get used to, accept and eventually be proud of me being a queer artist. It was a journey of repetition, family shame, time and grace. My mom’s family actually did not accept me coming out until my grandma realized people were going overboard and I was being bullied--she put her foot down and gave me some grace. My dad’s family stays oblivious or were my cousins and cool with it. It’s also constantly hard to go around explaining Laos to most if not all people I meet. Overcoming is a constant state of living. I overcome my struggles by still being the friendly and open person I am. It would be so easy to become jaded and negative about everything but I have a community of friends and family to support me.

I am not a fan of the “struggling artist” trope. I think it is immature to allow yourself to struggle for art. Art should enrich, not take away. I encourage young creatives to take care of themselves first, then you will open yourself to a safe creative space mentally.

I am constantly applying for exhibition spaces, studio space, residencies and fellowships to show my artwork. The 270 Million Project pushes me to want more spaces to keep it going and keep the conversation going. It’s hard to juggle a day job with being a freelance artist. Artists deserve more money to exist for the constant free work they do to uphold humanity’s history and culture. I am always trying to make time, space and energy to continue my work. I make sure I also have time for play too though. Socializing for fun energizes me more than resting by myself. If I’m not personally content, I can’t be the best artist I can be. I give myself time to be with friends as recharging time. I try to listen to what my body and mind needs are. I am not a fan of the “struggling artist” trope. I think it is immature to allow yourself to struggle for art. Art should enrich, not take away. I encourage young creatives to take care of themselves first, then you will open yourself to a safe creative space mentally. Reach life where it reaches you. Focus on what you are in abundance of, not scarce of. You will always have what you need for creative work if you listen and observe life well. Pay attention to what is important to you. What you find important is likely important to others. Know your audience because you might be the vessel they need to have visibility on that topic.

5. What are your thoughts on mental health? How do you perform self-care? What has helped you?

Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health because the mind and body are connected. I don’t make art work if I’m not in a good mental space. I believe everyone deserves rest. Capitalism does everything to make us feel like our productivity is our worth. Although I do like to keep myself busy, I never force creative work on myself.

I perform self care by staying connected to my community and friends via social media, snail mail letter writing, phone calls and in person quality time. There is nothing more comforting than quality time with people I care about. Sometimes I need self care in the form of art if I’ve been overworked in my day job with no outlet. I get restless without art time or socializing time. I also work so much that I try to not let myself feel guilty or bad if I’m just spending time having fun. Fun to me is visiting museums to learn new things, trying out new foods, watching reality tv with friends, exploring cute shops or maybe just wandering through a Target. I just like my aimless wandering time, something anti-productive.

6. What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?

I wish I saw more spaces for healing. I love the podcast Healing Out Lao’d by Rita Phetmixay. Listening to it was the first time I really felt seen as someone in the Lao diaspora. I grew up with not many Lao families around me other than my own so it was amazing for me to see there are more people out there trying to make sense of this identity.

7. What would you like to say to young SEAAs that you wish you heard growing up?

You might not see a lot of us achieving great things in the media but we are out here pushing for creative freedom. Work with the resources you have. See your limitations as branching points or challenges to think through a problem from different perspectives. SEA immigrants in America came from a lot of trauma and conflict in the 1970’s. We carry the pride of our people by just existing and doing the things that give us joy. Our joy is as important as our pain.


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