War Widows’ Husbands Remembered by Tools of Their Trade

When her husband was killed by a landmine in 1997, Mean Choeuy stepped into a nightmare.

“I fainted when I was told of his death,” she said on Wednesday. “I was two months pregnant with our second child.”

Ms. Choeuy and her husband had cared for their son and two adopted children on his meager salary as a farmhand in Banteay Meanchey province. When he was killed by an anti-tank mine buried in a rice field, she did not have the luxury of mourning him.

“A few days after his death, I started farm work,” she said. Hired to harvest rice, corn and cassava, she worked through the 2000s for 2,500 riel (about $0.60) per day.

In 2014, Cambodian-American artist Chath Piersath asked Ms. Choeuy to talk about her husband and her life after his death. The request took her by surprise.

“Nobody had asked them about their lives before,” Mr. Pier­sath said of the women he interviewed for his Cambodian War Widows Project.

The artwork and documents produced as part of the project will be exhibited on Sunday at the Sangker Art Space and Gallery in Battambang City.

Mr. Piersath, who is also a so­cial psychologist, embarked on the project in late 2014 but envisioned it long ago.

“I grew up in a household with three generations of widows,” he said of his grandmother, mother and older sister.

His idea: to collect the memories of women who lost their husbands during the Khmer Rouge era or fighting during the early 1970s and ’80s. It took shape when he met Mary Hamill, an American artist who uses photography to ad­dress social issues.

“We developed what questions to ask the widows, how to reply to them…and how to develop their pride in this endeavor,” she said in an email.

So Mr. Piersath met with 14 widows on the outskirts of Poipet City, all between the ages of 40 and 80 years old.

He asked each of them to tell their stories and to bring him an object that reminded them of their husbands.

“Basically, all the women re­membered their husbands tied to economic security because…when their husbands died, their livelihood went down and they struggled,” he said.

Objects ranged from a carpenter’s saw to a barber’s scissors. Mr. Piersath created cyanotype prints of the objects on pillowcases, which, he explained, represent those used during Cambo­dian wedding ceremonies and by couples after they are married.

Born in 1968, Mr. Piersath spent the Pol Pot era in Cambo­dia, emigrated to the U.S. in 1981 and now splits his time between the two countries.

The Cambodian War Widows Project was exhibited last year at Princeton University in New Jer­sey. The exhibition at the Sangker gallery will include some of Mr. Piersath’s earlier paintings, the pillowcase prints with the stories of the women he interviewed, and a vid­eo of the widows he made last month. The show opens at 5 p.m. on Sunday and ends on July 15.

Speaking about the project, Ms. Choeuy said she was glad she was part of it. “I hope the story I shared for the project can be a message that helps other widows understand that they are not alone, and that we have to be strong even though our husbands have died.”

[email protected], [email protected]

Related Stories

Latest News