A Cambodian art exhibition that opened this month in the US shows a striking difference between the themes chosen by artists living in Cambodia and Cambodian artists who live abroad.
While artists living here are concerned about reviving artistic traditions and expressing today’s reality, their Cambodian-American colleagues often depict haunting scenes from the Khmer Rouge era.
Providence College in the state of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Foundation Gallery are holding “The Spirit of Cambodia …a tribute,” an arts festival that began Oct 17 and will run until Jan 1.
Sponsored by numerous organizations in the state, the festival includes traditional dance, music and theater performances and a conference by Dith Pran, whose time of terror during the Khmer Rouge was related in the film “The Killing Fields.”
A Rithy Panh film retrospective, held last weekend at the Rhode Island School of Design in conjunction with the festival, attracted nearly 1,000 people the first two nights of screening. The Cambodian filmmaker himself addressed the audience at the event, which was officially sponsored by the Cambodian Society of Rhode Island.
The arts festival features six artists residing in Cambodia, along with six artists living in the US and one living in Canada.
More than half of their work on exhibit was created for the festival. Producing it within months was no easy task, said Chhim Sothy, whose watercolor designs, inspired by Hinduism and the life of the Buddha, float on canvas.
Architect Khuon Bounna has contributed sketches and photos of the Wat Vihear Samnor he built in Udong.
Duong Saree sent detailed watercolor works on canvas—including scenes of rural life in the 15th and 16th century, and a traditional coming-of-age cere
Ieng Hoeun created large leather shadow puppets based on characters from the Reamker.
Mak Remissa mainly sent photos of children, some playing at Independence Monument and others working in the fields.
Vann Nath, who went to Providence for the exhibit, contributed oil paintings on cloth showing fishermen, an old and lonely man, and one scene from his time at Tuol Sleng during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Among the artists living abroad, most of the ones who have lived away from Cambodia for decades have produced work expressing the Khmer Rouge regime, while the ones who moved away more recently showed scenes from daily life—some harsher than others, such as Khem Chantha’s painting of children working in garbage fields.
“It’s as if [artists gone for a long time] are still living the pain of the war,” said Molly McKinney, a US artist who served as the field person for the exhibition in Cambodia. “Here in Cambodia, people have had their losses, but they still have Cambodia,” she said. Cambodians overseas, she said, “have lost their homeland, their roots in a way,” and just have their memories.
The idea of the festival came up in June 2001, when Ann Norton, director of the Asian Studies Program and associate professor of art history at Providence College, visited the country to compile a list of artists to feature at a Cambodian-artist Web site. This prompted her to organize the event for which she selected participants from Cambodia.
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