WITHIN a week of launching the multimedia exhibition, ‘Her Sounds’ at the Mirage Contemporary Art Space in Siem Reap on Aug 23, American academic Emily Howe was back in the US where she plunged immediately into teaching at a new (for her) college and, despite “going a bit crazy” managed to communicate some of her thoughts about her exhibition via email by typing on her phone as her computer had just went on the blink.
Which perfectly illustrates the dedication, not to mention passion, to her cause which drives the academic who, as an ethnomusicologist, performer, teacher, scholar, and music conductor, knows a fair bit about being busy.
Since March this year, Emily and her collaborator – the Phnom Penh-based conceptual photographer Neak Sophal – have been travelling the country gathering stories, photos, graphics and audio grabs for ‘Her Sounds,’ a collaborative multimedia research project and exhibition celebrating Cambodia’s women artistes.
According to Mirage Gallery, the exhibition “constructs a living archive of the significant contributions women artists make to Cambodian society by documenting the perspectives of culture-bearers, innovators and community artists spanning the nation and generations.”
Emily explains the genesis of the exhibition. and how it was put together.
“The research presented at the exhibition is one phase of the research I’m undertaking for my PhD dissertation in ethnomusicology at Boston University,” she explains.
“I moved to Cambodia in February 2018 to begin fieldwork for the larger project, and started to think seriously about doing a sort of collaborative multimedia research project about women performing artists in October 2018 after receiving a grant from the Society for Ethnomusicology.
“After doing some preliminary work and planning on my own and then identifying Sophal as my collaborator, we started identifying artists we wanted to work with in March 2019, and then started traveling the country to do interviews and photo portraits in May 2019.
“This research phase lasted two months, and then we spent nearly two additional months to produce what you see in the exhibition.”
The list of Khmer women musicians, singers and dancer honoured in the exhibition is comprehensive and includes such veterans as Em Theay, an 86-year-old classical dancer who grew up in the Royal Palace, where she trained her daughter and granddaughter to follow her.
As a young woman singer, 71-year-old Hem Sovann moved to Phnom Penh from Pursat and performed with the big stars of the sixties and seventies including Sin Sisamouth. She is one of a few high-profile artists to survive the Khmer Rouge and she still performs.
Yeiy Chong, 68, has a specialised art – she performs ritual songs with the khen (mouth organ) at cremation ceremonies.
Younger women artistes featured in the exhibition include 27-year-old punk singer Vartey Ganiva, whose original songs express the realities of life for urban Cambodian women.
Siem Reap’s popular young dance troupe, New Cambodian artists, is making a big mark for itself by creating contemporary dance that is inspired by classical modes but explores contemporary issues facing modern women. Also featured in the exhibition is Srey Sokhy, 36, an active dancer before she married.
Musical group participants include Siem Reap-based Maen Sreymao, 32, an expert on the rare traditional instrument tro Khmer, and singer and member of the women’s drumming ensemble Medha.
Thorn Seyma, 42, is a singer and co-founder of the Khmer Magic Music Bus, a community music initiative bringing live traditional music to rural Cambodia.
And last but not least is the Messenger Band, comprising five former Phnom Penh garment workers who travel throughout the Kingdom singing about issues facing urban and rural communities.
Exhibition curator Emily Howe says the idea of bringing people together through a display of images and audio representations of artistes prompted her to plunge heart and soul into this project.
“I’ve been interested in community engagement projects for a long time, and I think the arts are just a great way to bring people together and get them thinking and talking,” she says.
“Because my research is on performing artists and ideas about continuity and change in the arts, I thought that image would be a beautiful way to document artists’ gestures and to demonstrate those continuities and changes across generations, and I thought audio documentaries would be a powerful way to share these artists’ voices and stories in their own words.
“Then I got to know Sophal and her extensive and powerful work in and with communities in Cambodia, and we worked together to come up with a concept for the exhibition which could bring the sounds and images together in a way that would honour these women’s stories and broader ideas about artistic transmission across generations.”
Emily Howe’s interest in Cambodia and its arts and culture first kicked off about six years ago when she came here briefly as a music conductor.
“I came to Cambodia for the first time in 2013 while working as a conductor with an organisation called the Boston Children’s Chorus, which has a mission of catalysing social justice by introducing children to choral training from an anti-racist pedagogical orientation,” she says
“When we came to Cambodia, we collaborated with several other organisations doing similar kinds of work, but I was fascinated by how the cultural context affected ideas about what justice is, how it might be worked towards, and how musical practice might be a part of these larger social projects.
“Then, when I returned to Boston, I began to engage with the large Cambodian-American community in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts — and thus was born my research interest in Cambodia!”
The exhibition with which Emily has been involved in winds up on October 21, but her work is permanently available on a website, Sonic Cambodia, which she says, “Documents Cambodian audible culture for a broad audience.”