Jesús Sepúlveda Travels to Cambodia to participate in Sylt Foundation’s program “Transformation and Identity, Trauma and Reconciliation”
For several years now the Sylt Foundation and its curator, Indra Wussow, have fostered a dialogue that breaks national borders between artists dealing with “Transformation and Identity, Trauma and Reconciliation” in their work, probing the legacies of Germany’s Fascism, South Africa’s Apartheid, Chile and Myanmar’s dictatorship, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. Following a Sylt Foundation residency in South Africa in December 2017, Chilean poet and RL instructor Jesús Sepúlveda was invited to Cambodia from August 3-17, 2017 to meet with fellow poets and authors from Cambodia, Germany, and Myanmar, and numerous cultural agents invested in Cambodia’s past, present and future. Indra Wussow and co-curator Irene Leung organized a rich array of encounters: there was a dinner roundtable with choreographer and dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro who collaborated with oral historian Theresa den Langis and trauma psychologist Sylvia Johnson to create a ballet performance on forced marriages—one of the legacies of Pol Pot’s regime; there was a brunch and later an art opening with Java Arts’ gallery owner Dana Langlois focused on supporting emerging Cambodian visual artists and designers; a discussion with Cambodian curator Lyno Vuth and young artists in a newly created artist-run space, Sa Sa Art Projects. With German author Sasha Rey and Burmese poet Diu Ga Lay, Sepúlveda also participated in a translation workshop with aspiring Cambodian poets, exchanging poems and crafting translations into English and/or Khmer that culminated in a public, multilingual poetry reading at Meta House, the German Cambodian Cultural Center, sponsored by the Goethe Institute.
The group also attended the screening of Cambodia Son in a community theater. The 2014 documentary by Masashiro Sugano relates the odyssey of Kosal Khiev, now 37 years old, born in a refugee camp in Cambodia, exiled as a one-year old to California with his mother and siblings, falling into delinquency and jailed at 16 for the next 14 years; and deported to Cambodia, permanently banished from the USA. Kosal, who has become a spoken word artist, took questions from the audience, shared memories and hopes, performed his texts, and joined the Sylt Foundation fellows for dinner.
Another unforgettable encounter took place with Youk Chhang, founder and director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (or DC-Cam). Himself a survivor, a refugee in the USA, and now a philanthropist and human rights advocate, he has a mission to document and educate about Khmer Rouges atrocities, bring justice to the victims, and heal with the curative powers of art and beauty. In addition to his archival research, Mr. Chhang commissioned late Lebanese celebrated architect Dame Zaha Hadid to design an exceptional building named the Sleuk Rith Institute that will serve as an archive, a museum, and a graduate research center for trauma studies in the heart of the Cambodian capital. The fellows toured the Documentation Center, observed the busy team of interns digitizing documents and testimonies, and the work of videographers, then visited the nearby Wat Langka temple to marvel at the funerary urns hidden from the Khmer Rouge and rediscovered by accident by Mr. Chhang. Across the boulevard, Cambodia’s main teacher’s college, the National Institute of Education, boasts an art gallery. As a parting gift to the group, Mr. Chhang gave everyone the Teacher’s Guidebook to the teaching of “a history of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979)” published by DC-Cam along with a textbook printed in the hundreds of thousands and distributed to all students in grade 9-12 (Kampuchea was the name of the Khmer Rouge state). “Genocide education is genocide prevention,” says the back cover.
Sepúlveda also delved into Cambodia’s contrasted history with an emotional visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a high school converted into a torture center by the Khmer Rouge), a tour of the Royal Palace, and excursions near the city of Siem Reap to the famed temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bantey Srei, and Preah Khan.
Grateful thanks go to the Sylt Foundation’s generosity and vision in making possible an essential cross-cultural, international dialogue among the arts on responding to trauma, on identity formation and transformation.