Beheadings and Needles: Cambodian Artists Shine in Paris

Through the streets of Paris, a woman clad in a glimmering red chador walked amid bewildered passersby, photo-bombing tourists at the Eiffel Tower and inadvertently joining protesters demanding conflict resolution in Yemen.

The next day, artist Anida Yoeu Ali reappeared in the chador in the Palais de Tokyo museum, this time sitting next to 99 baguettes painted white. Every hour for 12 hours, Ms. Yoeu Ali dismembered a baguette with a butcher knife if her facetious demands—such as “bring me 99 virgins” and “bring me all the flags from the former French colonies”—were not met.

Anida Yoeu Ali performs 'Beheadings' at the Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris on Monday. (Guillaume Lassiat)
Anida Yoeu Ali performs ‘Beheadings’ at the Palais de Tokyo museum in Paris on Monday. (Guillaume Lassiat)

Ms. Yoeu Ali’s absurdist performances, “Red Chador” and “Beheadings,” are part of an ongoing group exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, the largest contemporary art center in Europe. She joins another Cambodian artist, Svay Sareth, for the exhibit, “Secret Archipelago,” which showcases more than 40 works by Southeast Asian artists.

“Red Chador” and “Beheadings” satirize media portrayal of religious violence as public spectacle, as in the recent coverage of beheadings by Islamic State militants. In Paris, the subject hits close to home, with the January mass shooting at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper shocking the city.

At the same time, the project addresses France’s post-colonial legacy and the society’s “othering” of colonized peoples in the past and of Muslims and immigrants in the present.

“It was important that whatever work I present at PDT acknowledges the colonial links and post-colonial cultural legacies between France and Cambodia,” Ms. Yoeu Ali said via email from Paris.

Through humor, the “Red Chador” character prodded the French public to confront those issues.

“This is also what I do best—place my body out in the public and allow for people to react, respond and negotiate with it,” said the artist, who was born in Battambang in 1974 and raised in Chicago. “The role of contemporary art is to provoke thought and engagement and if I do so then I am happy with the work.”

Svay Sareth measures the path at Angkor Wat on February 22 for 'Prendre les mesures,' exhibited as part of the 'Secret Archipelago' show at the Palais de Tokyo. (Ly Mardi)
Svay Sareth measures the path at Angkor Wat on February 22 for ‘Prendre les mesures,’ exhibited as part of the ‘Secret Archipelago’ show at the Palais de Tokyo. (Ly Mardi)

Like Ms. Yoeu Ali, Mr. Sareth’s filmed performance and installation “Prendre les mesures” question France’s colonial legacy vis-a-vis Cambodia.

In a public performance in February, Mr. Sareth measured the causeway at Angkor Wat with a needle usually used to sew rice sacks. The effort, which took 8 hours and 7,315 needles, was filmed and, in the exhibition, projected onto an installation of needles piercing a sandstone block taken from Preah Vihear province.

The French expression “prendre les mesures” literally means “to take measures,” Mr. Sareth explained in an interview.

“You can see it in two ways,” he said: to measure something, or to take necessary measures to address a concern.

“I would like to talk about the lost identity, culturally, in Cambodia,” Mr. Sareth said of his own concern. “Compared to 20 years ago…Angkor Wat was a magical place, the spirit of the Cambodian people. But now it becomes an object of exploitation for the tourist masses.

“In terms of Khmer people, I feel like Angkor Wat does not belong to Cambodia at all,” he added.

Born in 1972 in Battambang province, Mr. Sareth was among the co-founders of art school Phare Ponleu Selapak in Battambang. He moved to France in 2002 to study at L’ecole superieure d’arts et medias in Caen. He now lives and works in Siem Reap, but says his art’s presence in the French context is critical.

“France was the country that made the colonial system of Cambodia,” he said. “So why I would like to show this to French people? To ask them questions: What happens to Angkor Wat temple now? What happens about the Khmer identity for the future?”

The exhibition at Palais de Tokyo began on March 26 and runs until May 17.

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