Renewal After Genocide: Post-War Cambodians in Diaspora

Ann W. Norton
Providence, Rhode Island, USA
New England Society of Jungian Analysts

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The people of Cambodia’s ancient and vibrant culture suffered unimaginable horrors during the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1975-1979. The survivors of Pol Pot’s regime, whether they remained in Cambodia or emigrated to other countries, carry both the deep scars of their War and a lasting pride in their cultural roots. The arts have played a vital role in helping Cambodians everywhere reclaim their heritage and heal their souls.

First, I will introduce two contemporary Cambodian artists whose works have touched the West. Then, I will emphasize the works of artists from the Cambodian “diaspora”: two from France and two from the United States.

While each story has its own personal complexities, it will become clear that two themes resonate with all of the artists and their works: the War, and Cambodian culture. At the same time, these works act as a beacon, both empowering other Cambodians – especially the younger generation – and bringing awareness of Cambodia’s tragedy and richness to non-Cambodians.

It is particularly important that psychoanalysts have an understanding of this unique cultural history. Even if they do not meet Cambodians in their practice, they may work with people who have war or genocide as part of their personal history.

Contemporary Cambodian Artists

Khuon Bounna: Trained before the War at the Royal University of Fine Arts, he has done much to bring back traditional art and architecture to post-War Cambodia. Drawings and a video of his works were exhibited in Rhode Island, USA, for “The Spirit of Cambodia … A Tribute,” in 2002. The Diaspora Cambodian community will bring him to America in 2005 to teach and design a traditional Buddhist temple.

Chhim Soth: An artist of the new generation, he studied under Khuon Bounna and others at the Royal University in Phnom Penh after the War. In the 1990s he painted some war-related works, as did many of his colleagues. More recently, his blend of traditional themes and designs with a contemporary style has won him a wide audience. His works in the 2002 exhibition in the USA were well received by both Cambodians and non-Cambodians.

Contemporary Cambodian-French Artists

Ngeth Sim: Born in 1949, Ngeth Sim studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, where he also taught before the War. He suffered not only the terrors of the Khmer Rouge, but also the hardships of the refugee camps. His haunting War paintings became known throughout the camps. When he emigrated to France in 1983, he developed a more Western approach in many of his works, but never forgot Cambodia or the War. His early death in 2002 was a result of an illness contracted in the camps, making him yet another victim of the Cambodian genocide.

Sera: Phousera Ing, whose pen-name is Sera, was born in Phnom Penh in 1961. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976, and from that time he began drawing the horrors that he saw. In 1979 his French mother took him to Paris, where he was trained at the University of Paris. He now teaches Plastic Arts at the University. While he is well versed in Western styles, his works also reflect his Cambodian roots and memories. In 2003 his illustrated book, Impasse et Rouge, dedicated to the memory of his father, was published by Albin Michel, Paris.

Contemporary Cambodian-American Artists

Samnang Yong: During the War, young Samnang and his family experienced flight, capture, and starvation before reaching the refugee camps. In 1981, Samnang emigrated to the USA, where he later received his art training at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, he returned to Cambodia for initiation as a Theravada Buddhist monk. Upon returning to America, he painted a series of works depicting this deeply moving personal experience. For the 2002 exhibition he contributed two powerful paintings which reconnected him to his War memories.

Beginning in 1999, Samnang worked with Western artist Holly Ewald to help create “dream books” with diaspora Cambodian families, enabling them to reconnect with their culture as well as with their situation in America. He also has been reaching out to Cambodian gang youths, helping them express themselves through art rather than violence.

Arn Chorn-Pond: The theme of “reaching out” can also be seen in the music and acting of Arn Chorn-Pond. Also a War survivor, Arn played the flute for the Khmer Rouge before escaping through the jungle to a Thai refugee camp. His story was told in the recent television movie, “The Flute Player,” by Jocelyn Glatzer. In the 1990s, with other “Children of War,” Arn took the message of peace to countries around the world.

Now Arn is dedicated to reviving Cambodia’s traditional music. Through his “Cambodian Masters Program,” he helps fund the few surviving Master Artists, allowing them to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Arn, like Samnang, has helped lead the youth of diaspora Cambodian gangs in more productive directions. He has taught “new” masters, such as the Cambodian “rap” group SEASIA (“Soul Elements of Asia”), from Lowell, Massachusetts.

These are just a few examples of post-war healing through the arts. These individual stories can help understand today’s Cambodians, each of whom carries a complex combination of a rich cultural heritage and scarring memories of genocide. Their renewal, as individuals and as a culture, is a miracle.

Through this one aspect of one War, there can be a message pertaining to other wars. The terrible outcomes go far beyond the plain numbers of war dead – the painful memories outlast any date of defeat or victory.