Issues

In Cambodia, War Widows Share Their Stories Through Art

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Ben Valentine for Hyperallergic.com

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia — The Cambodia War Widows Project, which began seven years ago as a social practice project exploring photography as a form of art therapy, is now having its first gallery installation in Cambodia. Instigated by Khmer artist and poet Chath Piersath and artist Mary Oestereicher Hamill, the work comes out of a long engagement with widowed women in rural Cambodia who have made haunting, heartfelt works. Now, together with small paintings by Piersath, the series is installed at Sangker Gallery in Battambang.

Piersath’s work does not come from some abstract sense of moral obligation. He was a refugee; his mom and two sisters are widows of war. Born in 1971 in what is now Banteay Meanchey Province, Piersath fled the Khmer Rouge by crossing the border into Thailand, finally making it to the USA when he was 10 years old, not to return to his homeland for 13 years. While people commonly use 1979 as the year the Khmer Rouge fell, the rural and western areas of Cambodia were still very much in conflict until the mid ’90s, including Banteay Meanchey. The province remains one of the most heavily mined areas in Cambodia, a deadly reminder of the multi-front battles and factions that fought there.

While growing up in the USA, Piersath dreamed of returning home and helping to rebuild his country in some way. Piersath moved back in 1994 to volunteer for the Cambodian-American National Development Organization, which aims to alleviate poverty in Cambodia, and has since worked with a variety of nonprofits throughout Cambodia from health organizations to ones working with the queer community. However, Piersath always believed that the arts, his personal passion, could be of use here as well. Motivated by his mom and two sisters’ challenging experiences as widows, he started with a simple, oral project: He began having conversations with and collecting stories from widows in a village where his sister lives, not far from where he grew up. 

While developing the ideas for the War Widows Project, Piersath met Hamill, a New York- and Princeton-based American, who first visited Cambodia in 2006, spending a month with a team from Stanford Medical School that converted a local school house into a clinic to provide medical services, while making art with a rural village in Vietnam.

Thereafter, “I proceeded to make my own art about Cambodia and I actively sought out a Cambodian artist with whom to collaborate,” Hamill told me over email. Upon meeting Piersath at one of his openings in New York, Hamill was immediately impressed, “his talent and concern were palpable. I was very lucky. We immediately began to plan to work together and to create this project.” From then on, Pietersath combined his plans for an oral history project with Hamill’s multi-media based practice, using cyanotype printing as a means to activate the widows’ words.

To understand the social value and power of this project one must try to understand the experiences of widows in Cambodia. Perhaps indicative of how widows are seen in Khmer culture rests within the word itself: In Khmer, “widow” (written “មេម៉ាយ,” pronounced “may my”) is the same word as “divorcée,” and the cultural treatment of both is similar. As Piersath told me over email, “women who lose their husbands are often looked down upon. They face social isolation and discrimination.”

While Piersath notes that being a widow anywhere is hard, it can be especially hard in Cambodia, where society often blames divorcées and is superstitious of widows. For widows, remarrying is frowned upon, and they often return to live with their families out of economic necessary. While as always we find exceptions, this reality is often doubly true for the more rural areas.

In a sense, the Cambodia War Widows Project creates a forum for the widows to discuss their losses, with Piersath and among each other, engendering a sense of community that can be difficult to find in socially isolating circumstances. As Hamill told me, “In making the cyanotypes of their families and their village and of their deceased husbands’ objects — and talking about it — they were able to explore memories and creatively re-imagine their pasts, presents, and futures.”

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