This Sunday, a new local grassroots effort called Children of Refugees is hosting their inaugural Forum for Art and Peace. The free event, taking place from 1PM to 6:30PM at the Khmer Arts Academy, will present a series of talks and performances, and is asking for monetary donations to support the International Rescue Committee.
Some of the many participants in the event include photographer Teru Kuwayama, whose work has focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, a TED Global Fellow, and an Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Naazneen Diwan, a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies at UCLA, is researching feminist agendas in Iraq’s reconstruction, and the legacy of French imperialism in Syria and Lebanon. She’s also conducted workshops with women in Gujarat, sharing arts-based tools to empower Muslim women.
Syrian born Faisal Attrache, an MFA student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, will be sharing segments from a documentary he’s making about Syrian refugee barbers in Jordan.
Grammy award winning music group Quetzal, self-described by lead singer Martha Gonzalez as an “East L.A. Chicana rock group,” will be sharing their original music, and award winning choreographer Yannis Adoniou, founding artistic director of KUNST-STOFF, will be performing as well.
Of particular interest to me is cultural anthropologist and dance ethnologist Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim. She’s written about the relationship between war, dance, and music in Cambodia, and currently serves as Director of Programs at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. She’s also a visiting lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, teaching a class, offered in both the anthropology and dance departments, called, “Dance, Migration and Exile.”
Prumsodun Ok, Director of Children of Refugees, and organizer of the event, explained why he invited her to participate.
“Toni is the leading scholar on Khmer dance and her dissertation, Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia, is a text which I find to be most beautiful and inspiring. She has played a significant role in reviving Khmer culture through her work, documenting and sharing how Khmer artists revived their nation and artistic traditions from the ashes of war and genocide. Due to this—and her many other contributions—Toni has been instrumental in helping Cambodia reclaim its place on the international stage following the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.”
With that in mind, I reached out to Toni.
Sander: Why are you participating in this event?
Toni: I’m honored to have been invited to participate. I admire the artist-activists who will be central to the event. I hope to learn from all who will gather and share that day. I also hope to contribute constructively to dialogue about grave injustices that befall individuals and communities — in this case, the crisis in Syria and the plight of millions who are now displaced from their homes and communities. My work has been centered at the nexus of the arts and social justice concerns for many years. This day will offer a forum for reflection, learning and plans for action.
S: How did you come to focus on that nexus?
T: During the height of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, when people were leaving Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, I worked in several refugee camps, camps that were located in Indonesia and Thailand. While there, I witnessed the great value placed on the arts, in the midst of inhumane conditions and profound loss and uncertainty. Among the Cambodians, as an example, camp residents developed performing arts centers on their own, while outside aid agencies had set up sanitation, education, and other programs. As thousands of their fellow refugees watched, young people who had just learned traditional dance and music would perform on make-shift stages. When artillery shells would fall (this was in a war zone on the Thai- Cambodian border), people would scatter, looking for their loved ones, and for shelter. When the shelling stopped, folks returned and the show continued. I came to understand the dance and music as having deep resonances for so many, and being a way to counter or even embody resistance to the chaos and violence that enveloped their everyday lives as refugees who had just survived a genocide, and who didn’t know where they would be going next.
S: How are the arts, and social justice, related?
T: The arts can speak to and of everyday realities of individuals and communities in the face of powerful (sometimes oppressive) institutions. Injustice rips dignity from people’s lives. I’ve been inspired by both the intentional and the unintentional ways in which artistry can call injustice to task. Artistic expression may nurture the soul, affirm identity, support community, and create and invite beauty and pleasure. It allows for the telling of stories on multiple registers. It can also be subversive.
S: Historically, we’ve seen that governments recognize the power of the arts and, at times, have aggressively eliminated traditional practices.
T: Yes. If the arts weren’t perceived as powerful, those in positions of authority wouldn’t find them threatening and wouldn’t forbid, or try to regulate, them.
S: This event is specifically, but not exclusively, focusing on some aspects of the current Syrian crisis. How are the arts are playing a role there?
T: I would love to learn more about this, and I’m hoping that, during Sunday’s program, there will be some discussion of the topic. I know of some visual arts initiatives, at least one of which is connected with a formal education program and psycho-social support as well: Children are given a safe space in which to express themselves through the visual arts, and they are also provided with counseling related to the horrors they witnessed or experienced.
I also read about a Finnish circus troupe that is offering classes in a Syrian refugee camp. I’m interested in learning about traditional arts (certain song traditions, for example) and if they have a place in camp life — and if so, what it is.
S: What do you do at the Philadelphia Folklore Project?
T: I’m Director of Programs at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, an arts and social justice organization that documents, supports and presents local folk and traditional arts and culture. I conduct ethnographic fieldwork, collaborate with a range of artists and community organizations to develop exhibitions, artist residencies, publications, and forums, and oversee an arts education initiative. Our mission is the affirmation of the human right to meaningful cultural and artistic expression.
S: What’s your connection to the Khmer Arts Academy?
T: I worked with the Cambodia-based branch of the Academy from 2008- 2010, developing an archive of classical Cambodian dance. I taught dance ethnology to performing artists there, and trained others in research and archiving practice. Plus, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, the artistic director of Khmer Arts, is my sister-in-law. Her husband, my brother John, is the Executive Director. They met each other when he visited me in Cambodia, when I was there doing my Ph.D. research in 1990!
The Khmer Arts Academy is located at 1364 Obispo Avenue.
To learn more about Children Of Refugees, or the other participants in Sunday’s forum, visit ChildrenOfRefugees.com.
To learn more about the Khmer Arts Academy, visit KhmerArts.org.
To learn more about the Philadelphia Folklore Project, visit FolkloreProject.org.
To learn more about the forum’s designated charity, the International Rescue Committee, visit Rescue.org.