LONDON — Artist Dayanny So left Cambodia when he was 24 years old. Having lost a number of family members to the Khmer Rouge, So managed to escape his still unstable and corrupt country for the UK, where he settled down and studied art.
Now, as part of his organization Khmer Arts and Heritage Limited, and together with the SEA Arts Fest and the Hackney Museum in London, So has organized Cambodian Recollections, a museum exhibition and online archive of oral histories of Cambodians now based in the UK. The show consists of 22 black-and-white portraits of Cambodian immigrants, a little text about each subject, a small collection of objects from So’s family, and a video playing clips from the interviews. The interviews are available in their entirety online.
“I have learned from people I interviewed that they too wanted to spread their untold stories to others about their painful memories,” So wrote to me, “but at the same to ease their pain through informal conversations.” By sharing these stories directly, Cambodian Recollections asks visitors: what is our responsibility to those fleeing political or economic perils around the world, then and now?
One story that particularly moved me (I almost cried in the museum) comes from Thida Ith. During a wedding in France, surrounded by family members going through old photo albums, Ith’s aunt suddenly burst into tears. Looking at an old photograph of their big family, two rows deep, the aunt said, “They are all dead.” Each and every person was killed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. While Cambodian Recollections is not solely a tale of tragedy, it is undeniably present throughout.
“I wanted to share my experiences and memories and include other Cambodians based in the UK who suffered as much or even more than I did,” So said. “We hope that visitors would appreciate our own personal stories and this will help prevent a harrowing history from repeating itself.”
Because of this, it’s important that Cambodian Recollections is as much an archive as it is an exhibition — a testament to the diversity of experiences of political chaos and immigration. The full videos of the interviews conducted by So are permanently stored and publicly available, accessible to anyone beyond Hackney’s borders.
At the museum, Cambodian Recollections is nestled amid a collection that documents the ever-changing culture and population of the diverse London borough. “Hackney has such a rich and diverse heritage,” wrote Niti Acharya, the Hackney Museum Manager, over email. “Here at Hackney Museum we strive to help people share and explore it through unique collections, engaging exhibitions, and learning opportunities.”
Accordingly, Cambodian Recollections has been incorporated into the museum’s extensive public programming, which means hundreds of children from the borough are having important discussions about immigration because of So’s exhibition. The show opened during Refugee Week, and with the news full of tragic stories of desperate Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar and boats full of North African refugees continuing to sink, it is, sadly, all too timely.