AMY LEE SANFORD, Full Circle, Unbounded Arc, 2016, clay, glue and string, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and InCube Arts, New York. 

INTERLACE: Three Artists in the Cambodian Diaspora

inCube Arts
Cambodia USA

AMY LEE SANFORD, Planning Anxiously (detail), 2016, polyethylene, polyester, glue, wood and steel, 126 × 70 × 16 cm. Courtesy the artist and InCube Arts, New York. 

Almost 40 years after the Khmer Rouge regime devastated Cambodian cultural production, artists are uncovering their own growth that formed out of the bloodshed. The genocide, which affected how Cambodians articulate their culture, perpetuated a mass exodus of over one million people who scattered across the globe to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. Caught between identifying their sense of belonging in two (or more) different countries, Cambodian refugees that fled the genocide have experienced various moments of displacement, abandonment and cultural hybridity. InCube Arts’ “INTERLACE,” curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, features three artists who weave into their work their personal life stories of growing up outside their homeland, as well as the challenges they faced while assimilating within a society that either ignored or misconstrued their native culture. Feeling stateless after fleeing their homeland, these artists have articulated and defined their own space through their artwork. They create their own metaphorical maps, illuminated with new shapes and border demarcations, through mixed media and performance art that reference childhood memories and practices that have remained throughout their upbringing abroad.

Earlier this month, on the evening of the exhibition’s opening, I was amongst crowds of people fervently watching Amy Lee Sanford’s performance Single Break Pot, West 52nd Street (2016), for which she smashed and then reconstructed a Cambodian clay pot. After escaping Cambodia in 1974, Sanford tragically remembers finding out about her father’s death only after the letters she had been exchanging with him ceased to arrive to her new American home. As part of the performance, while sitting cross-legged and dressed in plain, black loose-fit clothing and black glasses, she carefully examined each shard of clay as if she were inspecting objects for an archaeological expedition. As Sanford scrambled to find each fractured piece of the clay pot—which originated from Kampong Chhnang, the province where her father was born—she surrounded herself with Full Circle, Unbounded Arc (2016), a pot installation featuring the reconfigured clay objects. She sat adjacent to Planning Anxiously (2016), comprising scanned fragments of her father’s letters reshaped into three-dimensional form. The fragments have been molded into separate cubes, where each unit contains pockets of past memories, embedded within her father’s hasty cursive handwriting, with words such as “school” and “ticket” providing glimpses into his hopes for a better life for himself and his daughter. Surrounded by reconstructed objects and letters that resurface her past, Sanford’s concentration in creating these works mirrors her ability to channel her fractured family narrative into a symbol of rebirth and growth. In her words, as cited in the exhibition’s curatorial essay, “trauma, change and healing are inherent cycles of life.”

LINDA SAPHAN, Stateless (detail), 2016, foam mannequin paper and thread, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and InCube Arts, New York. 

While Sanford explores her sense of self by recreating past objects, LinDa Saphan uses embroidery as a way to “stitch” her own sociological fabric into the present. Saphan’s Stateless (2016) is a foam mannequin constructed from folded and stacked copies of the immigration form that she received and filled out upon entering the US with her mother as refugees. Always seen as an outsider, as a Cambodian refugee in Montreal, Canada, and later as the only Asian and Protestant in her Canadian high school, Saphan constantly searched for a sense of inclusion within her surrounding environment. Her new body of work Back Home (2015) juxtaposes embroidered images of Cambodian advertisements against her daughter’s drawings. Despite her advanced embroidery skills, Saphan had an aversion toward sewing as a child, remarking in an interview with this reviewer that, “instead of having sleepover and playdates with my friends, my mother made me and my sister learn embroidery, since she worked as a seamstress. I resented embroidering for a long time, but now I see this [as] part of my identity that I’ve accepted, and a skill rather than a burdened past. Now I can make dresses for myself and my daughter!” Showing her daughter’s drawings next to a sculpture that harkens to the artist’s past as a refugee, Saphan sees it as a way to explore a childhood that she never had.

LINDA SAPHAN, Stitches, 2015, from the series “Back Home,” drawings, paper, fabric and stitching. Courtesy the artist and InCube Arts, New York. 

Perpetuating her transnational experience by returning to Cambodia after years as an émigré, artist Anida Yoeu Ali embodies “otherness” and alienation in her interactive performances with the country’s local people. Ali, who fled Cambodia in 1979 and grew up in the US in a traditional Muslim household, created “The Red Chador” video series (2015), which highlights the Islamophobia she witnessed in America and while visiting Paris in the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings. In the two video works, Little Mosque on the River (2014) and The Old Cinema (2014) from the “Buddhist Bug” series (2012– ), Ali is seen visiting traditional Cambodian markets wearing an elongated, saffron fabric—emblematic of Buddhist religious attire—while also wearing a hijab. Ali stirs an immediate reaction in her audience as children and passerby’s stop and stare at the awkward alien figure meandering the alleyways. Although her audience recognizes her as an “other,” as they point and stare, it is noteworthy that they respond to her with attention and the visible language of bodily expressions.

The diasporic experience equips an individual with a consciousness that combines emotional attachment to home, belonging and return. Forced with the inability to resurrect physical recollections or the loss of family memories due to genocide, these artists are trying to resurface past traditions as a way to complete the cycle of rebirth. Returning home through either old manuscripts or physically interacting with the Cambodian people decades later, these diasporic artists are forced to create and redefine their own space of existence. Seeking a reincarnation of sacred memories, they have interwoven their insecurities and memories into a narrative that constantly shifts between home and return.

ANIDA YOEU ALIThe Old Cinema, 2014, still from HD video: 3 min 8 sec. Courtesy the artist and InCube Arts, New York. 

INTERLACE: Three Artists in the Cambodian Diaspora” is on view at inCube Arts, New York, until June 30, 2016.