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.”
The resulting artworks take the form of prints on pillows, hung from the ceiling, featuring objects that remind the women of their husbands. The blue, ghost-like prints on the floating pillowcases appear to be in a dreamlike state, beginning to capture how the memories of these objects have a simultaneously ephemeral yet undeniably visceral presence for these women.
Piersath decided to use the pillow form for several reasons. During a wedding, it is Khmer tradition for the bride and groom to place their hands together on pillows as a monk and/or relatives tie strings or ribbons around their wrists to pray for and bless the newlyweds. This is the moment the community acknowledges and blesses the couple. Later, when the couple is married and share a bed, each has his or her own pillow. If one dies, an empty pillow is left behind as a stark reminder of their absence. Looking at these pillows, reading their stories, we can imagine many hours in bed spent crying, dreaming, and longing for these men to return, for their memories to become real once again.
In Khmer culture, spirits are largely an accepted fact of life; seemingly everyone has a ghost story. Architecturally, we can see hints of this presence everywhere, most notably in front of or inside of most homes and businesses where spirit houses — often dotted with votive objects and incense — invite spirits and ancestors to protect, guide, and provide good luck. We can understand the pillows, and the associated discussions, collecting of objects, printing, and display as a sort of healing communion with the dead husbands.
However, as with so many community-engaged projects, the complexities and multifaceted nature of the Cambodia War Widows Project can feel lost in the gallery setting. The delicate detail on the pillows, for instance, struggle for attention in the gallery space; they need more room to breathe and be observed.
Of course, this is a social practice project, and a purely aesthetic critique falls flat in comparison to the therapeutic nature of the art. The true impact of this work rests nearly entirely on this group of women. We see a confused and messy timeline of their lives captured in “Life Lines of the Widows,” but the healing process of talking with and collecting these stories is what matters here. A true critique of this project would require a visit to the village to find the lasting impact of this work for these women or their community. This is something I hope to eventually do, but as for now, we are left largely guessing from within the confines of the gallery context.
Hamill, however, might disagree, noting the value of having these women’s stories heard. She noted that time and time again the women remarked, “nobody asked us before,” while sharing their stories.
They wanted their stories to be heard and their artwork to be seen. In this world that they know is increasingly connected, they gained a sense of satisfaction in making art that would communicate far beyond the borders of their remote village.
Accordingly, Piersath invited two women from the project — one of whom is his sister — to the opening to personally share their artwork and experiences with gallerygoers during opening night. Furthermore, prior to the opening, the gallerists and Piersath walked around Battambang inviting people to the show, and happened to meet a woman who was herself a widow. Her husband was a professor killed by the Khmer Rouge, and she ended up coming to the opening and sharing her life story as well. This continuation of the communal story and sharing process are an important component of the work.
In an earlier interview, Piersath writes, “My interest is to look at how they [the widows] adjusted their lives to these losses and how they manage to survive, and what lessons other people in the world can learn from them.” The installation does leave lovely hints of the intimate and moving stories of this group of women. More importantly, however, the project contributes to positive dialogue in this rural village. Although perhaps a very small act, bringing these women together, to share, connect, and build out of their loss is an empowering act that the installation only begins to capture.
The Cambodia War Widows Project continues at Sangker Gallery (#47, Street 1.5, Battambang, Cambodia) through July 15.