The Art of Bearing Witness: In Post-Genocide Cambodia and Beyond

The Art of Bearing Witness: In Post-Genocide Cambodia and Beyond

Academic Year:
2023 - 2024 (June 1, 2023 through May 31, 2024)
Funding Requested:
Project Dates:
Overview of the Project:
Three contemporary artists will speak to students enrolled in my seminar, via Zoom, on the role of the artist as a bearer of witness and/or as an ethnographer in a post-conflict society. These artist talks will help students enrolled in the seminar work towards a key goal of the course: to participate in the organization of a major exhibition that will open at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in February 2024.
Final Report Fields
Project Objectives:


This Fall semester, I have been teaching a dynamic course, HISTART 489.003/HISTART 689.003: Curatorial Seminar: Cultural Heritage and Post-Genocide Memory in Cambodia. My course is actively drawing students into the process of curating a major special exhibition entitled, Angkor ComplexGiven the time and difficulty in traveling to Southeast Asia in the middle of a teaching semester, a CRLT grant allowed me to bring into classroom, via Zoom, the voices of individuals from diverse walks of life.

Project Achievements:

CRLT funds ($750) were equally distributed to three individuals who spoke to my class, via Zoom, in September and October: 

 Emma Stein, Assistant Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Asian Art in Washington, DC spoke to my students about the challenges and opportunities presented by her recent exhibition Revealing Krishna, which considered how notions of cultural heritage in Cambodia intersect with increasing rainfall in the region, rising ocean levels and the more frequent flooding of the landscape. She also considered how such environmental and climatic changes in the Mekong Basin are complicating notions of ownership of historical artifacts and how museums in the U.S. are working together with stakeholders in the region to more meaningfully share and exchange expertise, and to use exhibitions as a means to effect positive change in the lives of imperiled individuals and communities

The impacts of trauma caused by colonialism, invasion, enslavement, civil war, genocide and migration in Cambodia -- much of which has rarely been addressed in courts of law -- has compelled contemporary artists in Cambodia to become more than participant observers and witnesses of unfolding angst. It has required them to become co-participants in the reconstruction of their country. Thus, Amy Lee Sanford spoke to my students about her sculptural installations that have grappled with her familial history, Cambodia's collective losses and the laborious tasks of reconstructing shattered lives, historical monuments, and urban fabrics. Binh Danh –– whose artworks will also be included in the upcoming Angkor Complex exhibition at UMMA –– also addressed my students.. He reflected on how artworks can nuance our understanding of how healing is unfolding in post-genocide Cambodia by helping us consider the transformative role of oral history projects, photographic archives,  new media installations, and history writing projects.

In all, these talks challenged my students and nuanced their own assumptions of human actions. They lead my students to reflect on the consequences of decision making. My students also learnt that for elderly survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and for younger generations who have inherited the trauma, healing unfolds at many levels: personal, communal, societal, and national. It also transpires in many spaces: in classrooms, monasteries, studios, clinics, and courts. The chance to ask questions to artists and curators honed their skills in synthesizing organizing and presenting information orally. Finally, these three guest lectures helped foster greater respect for justice, common humanity, and diversity, and greater critical appreciation of role of the arts in suturing post-genocide societies.


The Angkor Complex complex will open to the public in February 2024 and will be on view in UMMA thru July.