How Curation Revealed itself to Suriya Khuth
And how this emerging curator thinks about their own artistic path
Communications Specialist Meredith Heneghan spoke with Sutures curator Suriya Khuth in November, 2021.
Communications Specialist Meredith Heneghan spoke with Sutures curator Suriya Khuth in November, 2021.
I talked to Suriya Khuth one afternoon in late 2021 to get a better sense of who this engaging, thoughtful, and gentle emerging curator is. The conversation was warm and energizing. Suriya’s commitment to curation—and curiosity about their own identity within it—came through at every turn.
MH: What do you want people to know about you?
SK: I’m a queer Khmer-American lens-based artist and independent curator from Rochester Minnesota, but I am currently living and working in the Twin Cities. My art practice is rooted in photography and collage as ways to explore and reflect on queerness, femininity, and transformation.
MH: Did you always know you wanted to pursue a curatorial path?
SK: Curating is a path that revealed itself to me later on in my life. I grew up in Rochester which is not the most ideal or expected place to find or be an artist. The whole downtown is a giant hospital so there is this very dominant medical presence everywhere. As a result I’d say that medicine was often seen as the only type of innovation.
My family owns an Asian grocery store, which is also not the best place to be an artist, because everyone was constantly like, “What are you doing? How are you gonna make money? How are you going to put food on the table?” You have all these communities that didn’t have access to art spaces and art making in general, so there was often this misunderstanding of paths in the arts and the actual labor and dedication that goes into it.
I went back and forth a lot during undergrad, but it was towards the end of my time at Macalester that I decided to commit myself to art-making. During my junior year at Macalester, I applied on a whim to the Live It Fund, which is essentially funding that they give to undergrad students who want to pursue a project that embodies the idea of global citizenship.
At the time, I had been reflecting on the fact that growing up, there was a lack of spaces dedicated to exploring the practices of Cambodian artists and narratives beyond trauma and genocide. I was really interested in creating a publication that could work towards trying to fill in that gap.
During the Cambodian genocide, a lot of aspects of our culture were erased or destroyed, so I knew I wanted to create a physical object that is working and living within the aftermath of all of that. I decided to make Generation Magazine, a publication that exists at the intersection of print and diaspora—a meeting point where all these histories and experiences and ways of imagining can come together.
I realized that the whole project was a form of curating itself. It’s creating relationships with artists, learning about their work, and seeing the throughlines between some, you know? I had been so clueless about the labor that curators do, really unaware of this very people-oriented aspect of curating. It’s an intimate process—especially when an artist invites you into their world—and it’s something I can see myself doing and learning from for a very long time.
MH: That idea of being in community with artists has really come through with your current project, in the way you’ve told the stories alongside the artists involved. For a really good example of this community, people can watch the virtual program related to the exhibition. Tell us about Sutures—who are the artists and how did it all come together?
SK: Sutures is an exhibition that pulls together the works of four artists, Cheryl Mukherji, Prune Phi, Sopheak Sam, and Daniella Thach. It is interested in how all of these artists are recognizing a new potentiality in moving and still images. Although it’s an exhibition centered around images, the artists lean on various other mediums—neon, collage, projection, writing, textiles—to give new voice and meaning to material sourced from family albums, films/documentaries, print media, and so on.
It draws loosely from Okwui Enwezor’s essay, Archive Fever: Photography between History and the Monument. He talks about the idea of an archive as a place where a suture between past and present is formed. I was drawn to that very intimate act of sewing things together, you know. The hand, the attention to detail and precision—I thought it was a really poetic way to describe how these artists were stitching together very disparate media, histories, and memories.
When I started envisioning this show before I applied to ECI, I thought it was going to be much more centered solely around exploring and showcasing Southeast Asian identity. But early on, I was talking with my ECI mentor Tricia Heuring, and I think she sensed that there wasn’t that “oomph”, I wasn’t lighting up when I was talking about it. And she suggested, what if being Southeast Asian is just, like, a given? What if that is a background context for other things that you can explore in an exhibition? Once I kind of freed myself from feeling the need to make a whole Southeast Asian identity exhibition, I started to tap into other things that interested me—memory, the act of remembering, world-making, the process of becoming.
I’m really thankful to be collaborating with these artists as both a curator and an artist myself. I think a benefit of being both an artist and a curator is that whatever I curate, whether it be Sutures or onward, it will always somehow feed into my own practice. Like I’ve said, curating is this really intimate process where you get to glimpse the pulse that drives an artist’s practice. You get to hear about the ideas they’ve discarded and salvaged and how they are fleshing out whatever projects they’re working on. You really get to see all the stages and lives of a body of work—from the initial spark to a fully realized body of work.
Sopheak, Daniella, Cheryl, and Prune have all given me a new entry point into understanding my own work. I can’t thank them enough for that.
MH: When thinking about your origins in Rochester, you talked a bit about having to go back there during Covid and feeling a real urgency to move forward with your artistic and curatorial practice so that you didn’t get stuck. I think we can all relate to this in some way—there’s a human urge to move forward. Sutures addresses this in some really interesting ways, because the artists are drawing on their family histories to create new ideas, identities, and narratives. How have your recent experiences with your family and in your hometown touched your creative practices?
SK: My family’s store has been so successful because of the produce it sold, but also because of the way people in my family have forged long-lasting relationships with the customers. It’s become more than a store; it’s a community. I think people feel comfortable returning again and again because of these relationships that are so rooted in care.
My mom also recently got into real estate work and is always staging houses to make those empty spaces feel comfortable for someone to live in and see the potential in. Her work also seems so reliant on building trust with her clients as buying or selling a house is often an incredibly stressful, complex, back and forth process. I don’t think anyone in my family would ever see what they do as related to curating, but they are all in some way engaging in things that lie at the heart of it: space-making, care, trust, patience.
MH: It’s interesting too because you were describing this initial feeling of not really knowing what curating was, so naturally your first forays into that world are not necessarily going to be met with an immediate sense of confidence about it. But it’s cool to see that you’ve now integrated curation into something you’re comfortable claiming as your identity simply because of the way you’re able to see it in other things. There’s clearly a sense of ownership in that role now.
SK: It feels good to feel comfortable claiming that title. Early on in ECI Fellowship, I was always just like “I’m just a silly clown attempting to curate!” I still have a little bit of apprehension about it, but I’m getting there and I think you’ve pinpointed a really big shift: being able to acknowledge that curation is not something I’m trying to claim, it’s just part of who I am. A lot of that too is literally seeing people that look like me in these spaces. Getting the opportunity to meet other Southeast Asian curators like Lumi Tan and Tricia Heuring during my time at ECI affirmed that this is a path and a title I can follow too.
MH: Sutures provides such a full, sensory journey—it’s much more than just art in a gallery. I wonder what sort of art you like to experience? What artists or curators do you really enjoy?
SK: I was in Chicago for the Joy of Giving Something Imagining America Fellowship, and it was my first fellowship for photography. I got the chance to be a part of this inspiring cohort of young and hungry artists who were all putting in the work in showing up for their practices everyday. My time during that fellowship showed me how much I needed and loved to be around creatives who were always dreaming big and who were always trying to innovate their approaches to art-making and storytelling.
One day, we were all wandering through downtown Chicago and we stumbled across the Museum of Contemporary Photography. I remember not being super amazed by the works on display, so I wandered to the upper level of the space and there was this huge Paul Sepuya print called “Studio.” It was my first time coming across his work and all I remember is being so confused yet intrigued by this amalgamation of collage, portrait photography, and studio photography. Up until then, I have never seen anything quite like it. I just remember looking up at it and being like, “What the fuck am I looking at?” And to be honest I don’t think I even liked it at first, I was just kind of lost. The longer I stood with it though, I started piecing together fragments of bodies and began to notice these queer undertones within it.
Beyond Paul Sepuya’s practice, I find myself returning over and over to the works of Pacifico Silano, Kenturah Davis, Felipe Baeza, and Troy Michie. I’d say the throughline in all their works and practices is their ability to slow down the art viewing experience. There is always this sense of searching and discovery in their works. I’m excited by artworks that have these moments that show up on the sixth or eighth time you look at them. I’m drawn to the details that you won’t notice until you take some time away and then come back to realize, “Oh, there’s been a story or a message embedded in here this whole time.”
And I’d say that’s the case of the works in Sutures, too. None of the works in the exhibition are easily digestible at first glance. They’re works that you need to take time with, and they’re not always going to explicitly tell you what they mean or are exploring right off the bat. And that’s important for a show at the M in particular where they’ve transitioned to a street-style method of displaying works. I hope that as folks walk by these windows of moving projections and ambiguous collages, that there’s this level of intrigue that stops people in their paths to look at them a little longer.