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Anida Yoeu Ali bares all at the Siem Reap performance of Litany. Photograph: Loven Ramos

Phnom Penh disconnect: a refugee’s poetic journey

“ABSENCE is a gut-wrenching bellow for home.” The first line of multi-disciplinary artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s ink-stained, weeping performance poetry installation, Litany, unveiled at the first North Kingdom Poetry Festival in Siem Reap last weekend, is indicative of a constant in the artist’s work - a longing for a sense of place and belonging as a Cambodian-born, American-raised refugee.

The Phnom Penh-based former Fulbright research fellow and co-founder of Studio Revolt, which she created with her film-maker husband Masahiro Sugano, welds the visual arts with poetry and spoken-word performances. Last Saturday night, she sponged and stained ink over stencils plastering a pallid brick wall, inviting her audience to work with her. The following morning, the stencilled letters had curled up and tumbled to the floor, revealing Ali’s prose. She spoke with Claire Knox about spoken-word poetry and the importance of modern art, modern poetry and language in Cambodia.

Can you tell me a bit about your history and background in poetry and how it evolved into what it is now?

I started, in terms of my performance career in spoken word, in 1998 through a Chicago based group called ‘I was born with two tongues’- it really helped to forge the Asian-American voice in performance poetry.  Once I began to travel and tour internationally, I found my spoken-word poetry to become limiting. Language was failing me, things were lost in translation and people were not understanding the nuances of the work. I came to Cambodia in 2004 and was performing the same work, but began to realise the value of theatre and using the body more. All of that channelled into a performance installation, a vernacular that is now pretty heavy in my work. I was born in Battambang and left in 1979 at the age of five. I’m part-Cham, part-Thai and part-Malay, but I definitely identify as Cambodian Muslim.

Looking at Litany and even your other video pieces such as the short films 1700% Project: Mistaken For Muslim and Who’s Got Us, themes of yours seem to be discrimination, dislocation, misogyny and racism. What other themes permeate your artwork and, in particular, your poetry?

I find I push for a narrative, often it’s of the untold or marginalised voices, and it’s rooted in a personal struggle, a kind of autobiography, my multi-faceted identity. Litany was really about absence: what does it mean, both the negative and positive spaces absence creates in my life? If I am here, it means I am not somewhere else; it’s always tearing at me - being here and not being able to be there. It’s definitely a struggle for me; my home is not one place. Being a foreigner versus a local, an insider versus an outsider. Spoken word is an art form, and you have to understand rhythm and metaphors and alliteration: the things that are sound-based. A lot of poetry for Khmer people is rooted in sacred rituals. It’s very different now; the use of English has proliferated, it’s much more pervasive now and there’s more exposure to rap music and hip hop, so I think spoken- word poetry has been allowed a much better reception now than when I started in the early 2000s.

What did the sponging, dripping ink and peeling symbolise?

The whole process of the installation is the way that the poem is activated. The physical act of staining was a deep idea for me, having your moment on there with those words and not quite understanding their relevance until it surfaces when the peeling letters fall off. I had a desire for it to be a public performance where everyone tries to unravel this thing that is in their periphery. I wanted the letters and words to literally fall off the walls, randomly fall on to the floor and when the audience  steps back they realise what is left, which is the mark of absence.

Do you think ancient Khmer forms like Smot could be neglected in favour of modern poetry?

Actually, I hope that English-based spoken-word poetry is helping to infuse an inspiration in local folks that you can do this with Khmer-based script and language. I hope we can transition the art form into Khmer. I believe that any sort of hybridity that comes from modernisation of Khmer poetry is a good thing and maybe a necessary component to cultivating a new audience for what is a very ancient form. We’re in an exciting moment in terms of Cambodian contemporary art, we are moving beyond preservation - young people are looking at innovation, changing and altering traditions. I don’t think it means traditional forms will die out - the country has worked very hard to make sure these art forms are protected under UNESCO. This is something that always happens: every generation needs a way they can grab on to language that makes sense for them. That’s how language transforms and evolves.

*Litany will be on display at Hotel 1961 in Siem Reap until January 

Anida-Yoeu-Ali

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