The exhibition “Distant Geography,” opening today at Phnom Penh’s Java Cafe, is the reflection of a man’s journey over several decades as he attempts to unearth roots whose traces have disappeared and deal with a reality that often proves puzzling.
A mixture of collage, watercolor, ink and acrylic works coupled with lines of poetry or reflections, the exhibition consists of pages taken out of artist Chath pierSath’s journals spanning several decades.
These journals have been his way of processing what he went through as a child in Khmer Rouge work camps before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1980s where he worked through his school and university years, eventually securing a Masters degree in social psychology.
“In the realm of life, you have so many different vehicles, so many ways of self-expression, of delving into your own humanity, ways of documenting things so that you can be more aware of what’s going on in your society,” Mr. pierSath said. “And sometimes, these things create beauty or awareness in other people around you.”
Done in what has become his signature style, the exhibition will feature sketches rather than identifiable portraits of people. And yet, the emotion they emanate is infinitely real.
In the work entitled “Once a family,” a man is walking while a second man mirrors his steps in the background. The lines accompanying it read, “Once a family, we disintegrated to war, violence and diseases, and in our sorrow we burn.”
“Educating a sister,” which is a blue-grey depiction of a man in work clothes holding two children, is complemented by a text dated January 9, 1997, about a conversation between Mr. pierSath and his sister who was angry with Cambodians in the U.S. who, she said, gossiped about each other.
“What race or group of people is free of the things you claim,” Mr. pierSath had replied. “You mustn’t judge yourself and a people based on your few, but limited, experiences.”
The work in grey, black and dark orange entitled “My brother died” shows a person amid excerpts from letters between family members. It comes with the text: “My brother died of Aids made of opportunistic infections killing him slowly.”
The 45-year-old artist began keeping journals in the mid-1980s after reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” written as she was hiding from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.
When he returned to Cambodia to work on development projects in the 1990s, his journals became a way for him to trace his ancestry.
“In a country where there’s a lot of interruption in your life, no continuity in terms of your relatives or your personal history, the bond that you would normally have created with relatives or friends…one cannot accumulate this continuity of living, of feeling that one is connected to a particular group of people,” Mr. pierSath explained.
“All this disconnect, all these interruptions, create this loss of memory of people who would otherwise have been in your life.”
This led to his journal “Book of Names” that contains names of relatives who had faded away through the years, and the “Book of Numbers” on those killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, whose policy was to turn people into numbers, which Mr. pierSath illustrated by covering pages with numbers highlighted with an occasional blood-red line.
As years passed, he has revisited the artworks in his journals, often modifying them. With a lifestyle consisting of working six months of the year on a fruit farm near Boston in the U.S. and spending the other six months in Cambodia developing his own arts projects or collaborating with other artists, he tries to keep his possessions to a minimum. This is why he has modified or eliminated pages of journals as he reviewed them, he said.
A poet as well as an artist, Mr. pierSath has so far published two books of poetry illustrated with his paintings. “This Body Mystery,” released last year, presents mini-portraits of Cambodian HIV/AIDS patients he met in the 1990s as part of his development work in the country. His 2009 book “After” contains poems in prose, make-believe letters addressed to relatives or friends and recounting people’s lives under the Khmer Rouge regime and later in the U.S.
As a visual artist, Mr. pierSath had a solo show this year at the Tally Beck Contemporary Gallery in New York City. During his exhibition at Java Cafe, which will run through November 24, Mr. pierSath will hold a discussion on art on November 12.