Los Angeles A portrait of “doughnut kid” Emily Taing by artist Phung Huynh.
Phung Huynh expands on the refugee narrative by centering Khmer voices in her exhibition Donut Whole
Artist Phung Huynh tells the story of “doughnut kids” — second-generation Cambodian Americans who grew up in their family’s doughnut shops — in her exhibition Donut Whole at Self Help Graphics & Art in East Los Angeles, which is running from now until May 27. The artist examines how identity is informed by both the past and present through a series of eye-popping, multilayered portraits printed on unfolded pink pastry boxes. Though swapping out white boxes for pink ones was initially a cost-saving measure adopted by the early wave of Cambodian refugees who owned doughnut shops in the ’70s and ’80s in Southern California, the now-iconic packaging has come to represent the ingenuity and resilience of the Khmer experience in America.
Donut Whole expands on existing refugee narratives by centering Khmer voices and encourages viewers to reflect on their understanding of assimilation, success, and the American dream. Huynh conceived the idea to use pink doughnut boxes as a platform for storytelling in 2018 while painting a mural for chef Roy Choi’s Las Vegas restaurant Best Friend. “That mural really honors the immigrant story and how immigrants and people of color are the backbone to LA,” she says. The hand-painted scene overlooking the restaurant’s main dining room features notable Angelenos in the arts including Shelby Williams-González and Evonne Gallardo, an abundance of cacti (a symbol of immigrant resilience, says Huynh), and a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe held up by a Chinese cherub.
Huynh came to better understand the intersection of art, food, and personal histories while creating the mural, and set to work on the first iteration of her pink box portraits following the project’s completion.
Portrait of Monica Khun.
Though Huynh explored aspects of her cultural identity in earlier exhibitions, including the impact of contemporary beauty standards on Asian female bodies, it took over four decades for her to find the language, both artistically and culturally, to approach this part of her past. (Huynh’s Chinese Cambodian father escaped to Vietnam during the Cambodian genocide and relocated their family to the United States from Vietnam in 1978.) Huynh grew up in and around the doughnut shops owned by her family and friends that have since shuttered. “Assimilating is a process that takes a lot of time, like generations. When we first arrived, our parents didn’t have the language to tell our story, so white historians are telling the story. Now we’re coming of age; now is our moment to tell our stories for us,” says Huynh.
For Donut Whole, Huynh collaborated with Pink Box Stories — a digital space dedicated to documenting “stories of the Cambodian families behind California’s donut shops” — to connect with her subjects. Master printmaker Dewey Tafoya assisted Huynh with silk screening the seven portraits in bright hues inspired by popular doughnut flavors like ube,