Co-organizer Richard Kong speaks during the Toothbrush Drive for Cambodia arts fundraiser. All photographs by Breanne Lynn Patterson.
Visual artists, musicians, community activists and health practioners staged the “Toothbrush Drive for Cambodia” last Saturday, November 10, at The Greenhouse, as part of the 2nd Saturday Art Walk. The fundraiser was sponsored by the Cambodian Health Professionals Association of America to advocate for increased attention to dental health in Cambodia. Art objects, raffle prizes and services were auctioned off to raise money for the association’s upcoming health‐dental mission.
The bin of donated toothbrushes will fulfill unmet hygienic needs and the money raised will support the nonprofit’s operating costs and causes, but the other most apparent impact of the event was the introduction of the many talented Cambodian-American visual artists to the East Village arts scene.
“The fundraiser was to serve as an outlet for Long Beach artists from a Cambodian background,” said Co‐organizer Richard Kong. “We encourage them to develop as individuals, and we supported them by encouraging them to donate their work for a cause.”
Kong’s compassionate statement represents a powerful two‐pronged, activist approach wherein volunteerism functions as a catalyst to inspire cultural and civic pride. By staging art within this context, the performing and visual artists contributed to the ongoing dialogue around activist art. Simultaneously, this exhibition draws attention to the thriving artistic community in the Cambodia Town.
Artists responded to the exhibition’s theme of “work inspired by the Golden Age in Cambodia” in a variety of ways. Somita was one of the exhibiting artists, and noted that she often incorporates symbols that are culturally significant. Unique to Somita’s style is her self‐described hybrid blend of traditional American tattoo culture with Cambodian culture. Her intimate mixed‐media grayscale work “Untitled 1,” had the expressive line quality and symbolism of an inked expression.
The complex composition evoked the tributary images, often marked on an individual to both exercise pain and serve as a cultural mark. Present in this highly personal image were symbols of memento mori. A skull and snake dominate the right side of the composition juxtaposed by an oversized lotus flower supporting a traditional Khmer dancer on the left. A miniature boat drifts away through a surreal watery background. A bi‐lingual ribbon floats heavily across the small composition with the haunting statement printed in Khmer and English: “Kingdom of Khmer.”
Somita’s work was one of the most direct visual examples in response to the damage dealt to Khmer culture as a result of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. From 1974‐1979, the extremist Cambodian Communist sect led by Pol Pot, participated in the genocidal destruction of its own people and a ban on cultural art forms, religious institutions and suppression of societal structures. It is estimated that during this four‐year period between one and two million Cambodians perished due to assassination, or oppressive conditions in agrarian work camps. Somita’s gritty image pays homage to the tragic treatment of the human body and the impact on cultural memory.
For graphic artist Nak Bou, the visual response to the show’s theme involved a linguistic mutilation and dissection of the body. “The Butcher,” Bou’s graphic diptych focuses on a central carved up figure, depersonalized through the use of expressive line and minimal, garish yellow color. Worm‐like ravels of thread resembling Cambodian script seemed to migrate from the individual’s face and down to the second frame. The tendrils of fabric seemed to multiply in the figure’s lower half turning into a sticky white mess. Only the feet and hands remain in tact.
Photowall curated by Chelsea Devere. Photographs and prints by Devere, photographic contributions by Susana Cobo and William Camargo.
This violent image seemed even more jarring due to the figure’s off‐centered placement within the picture plane. Art can function as an outlet to process historical trauma, but in the case of Ritchie Kong, the weight of the past on the next generation is a source of artistic content.
Many young Cambodian-Americans negotiate a complex hyphenated identity and the first-generation experience. Kong utilizes a graffiti, aerosol‐like aesthetic in the acrylic painting in “Reverence.” Again, the body is again broken up into bits in pieces. The layering of acrylic paint is a technique that Kong learned as a graff artist. The style recalls the machine‐like figures and cinematic techniques utilized by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet, for its urban, futuristic feel,it has a spiritual side. Stylized Cambodian letters and décor and a strong Christian overtone are a reminder that street‐inspired art has been appropriated into the mainstream and is used to express a range of subjects.
Cambodian-American performing artists including community organizer, artist and spoken word poet Jumakae performed, along with acoustic and DJ sets. Throughout the night, educational videos were played for a hushed audience, packed into the front room of The Greenhouse. Neighborhood businesses, Utopia and the Village Grind each contributed proceeds from customers to the cause.
Will this event will parlay to deeper artistic collaborations throughout the city of Long Beach between art institutions, artists in Cambodia Town and the broader arts scene? Long Beach would certainly benefit from a more robust dialogue between the different aesthetic collaborators currently divided by the city’s boroughs‐like layout. These Cambodian-American artists have opened up the dialogue.
Tracy C. Teran is an arts professional and independent scholar. She can be reached at [email protected].
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