Remembrance could be a sensitive subject in a nation like Cambodia, where the horrors of its brutal history are still stamped in the minds of many. Even as the country recovers from its bloodied past, the traumatic period that began with the announcement of Year Zero by Pol Pot’s regime remains a topic many would rather discuss in hushed tones or avoid entirely. While some would argue the only way to move on is to look forward, others say it was a monumental moment in Cambodia’s history – an integral part of the country’s identity.
Khmer Times spoke with Paris-based French-Cambodian artist Ing Phouséra, who was born in Phnom Penh and left for Paris in 1975, about the importance of acknowledging the past and how abstract art can play an important role in changing the discourses surrounding the notion of identity in the face of increasing diversity.
KT: I wanted to draw some attention to your earlier works, in particular, the trilogy of graphic novels that deals with a particularly dark moment in Cambodia’s history, as well as the follow-up, Bitter Cucumber. You broke the narrative by using a different medium to raise a topic that, to this day, remains a sensitive one. What inspired you to do this?
Séra: I was only a child, but it did have an impact on me as an individual. I saw the scale of destruction, the senseless violence. By 1975 we had already arrived in France, but even then, it was a very hard thing for me to process. When we arrived in France, people were telling us how lucky we were to be on the right side of the war. But then I thought to myself, whose war?
Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to become a graphic novelist. Bandes dessinées (comics) is something that I have always wanted to do.
As soon as I was able to do it, I wanted to use it as a medium to express my experiences as a child growing up in war-torn Cambodia.
The world sees the Khmer Rouge era through a warped and highly-politicised perspective. And through Bitter Cucumber, I wanted a different approach. It is a graphic novel, but it isn’t a graphic novel per se – there is no room for my imagination in the novel, so to speak.
I wanted it to be honest, because there are so many misinterpretations and misunderstanding of the facts.
I wanted this part of our history, to be more accessible to everyone – both the younger and the older generations alike.
KT: There are divergent views on the matter. While some would argue that the idea of remembrance is important as it forms a part of the national identity, some critics may argue that the only way we can move forward is by looking forward. How would you respond to such criticisms?
Séra: If you don’t know your past, you are really not in any position to face the future. We form romanticised ideals of our deceased relatives. Surely everyone has that image – that indescribable link with the land where they were born.
For me, it is a lie to say that we don’t need to acknowledge the past. It is impossible to go forward if we do not know our past – even at the level of the individual.
We have to do it, also because we have to honour those who are no longer here with us. That is why I am also working on the several memorial projects in Phnom Penh’s open spaces. I want people to face this particular moment in our history.
KT: Your latest works deal with ideas of remembrance and how it links to identity. Not only will you be speaking on the matter in the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival, but you will also be inaugurating a Cambodian Tragedy Memorial in Phnom Penh in December. Can you tell us more about the symbolism behind the design?
Séra: The design is based on the human body – one lying face-up, the other one in prayer stance. Why was he praying? Maybe he was facing a certain death. The prayer stance is meant to evoke hope in times of despair.
The other statue’s feet are in the air – a symbol of the displacement and deportation of the Cambodian urban population. The statue is based on a linga [the phallic symbol of masculinity] – and when I managed to raise enough money, I wanted to put it inside a basin of water to symbolise the linga’s feminine counterpart, the yoni.
Eventually, it will be set against two walls, which can be used to express abstract expressions of what is going on in society. I want this memorial to serve as a reminder that at this particular moment in time, that was the reality for far too many people.
KT: I want to come back to your series of talks in the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival, which circle around the issue of identity and conflict. When these two words come together in one sentence, the ending is usually not pretty. How does art fit into all this?
Séra: Art can play a significant role as it can be used as a means to unite. This is especially true for abstract art forms. The very nature of it forces us to stop and think for a while, to completely understand what is being conveyed.
In the end, everyone will have their unique take on, let’s say, the same piece of abstract painting.
A Cambodian, a Laotian, a Vietnamese, an Indonesian might not necessarily share the same feeling over the same objet d’art but they share the same appreciation of the art form. Their appreciation of the art is the lowest common denominator among them all.
This is what we need to apply in real life. Instead of focusing on our differences, we need to find ways of finding a common ground – and art could be that vessel that brings us all together.
Ing Phousera (Séra) is a guest speaker at the upcoming 2017 Singapore Writers Festival from November 3-12.
The Cambodian Tragedy Memorial in Phnom Penh will be officially inaugurated on December 7.