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Artist Heak Pheary let women tell their own stories for her project.
Artist Heak Pheary let women tell their own stories for her project. Eliah Lillis

A dignified ‘walk in her shoes’, in art

At an art event focused on domestic violence last night, six plastic feet did much of the talking.

Inscribed on the soles of six sculptures of women’s feet were their own stories of violence, engaging the audience in a conversation as part of The Dignity Project, which was held at the French Institute to mark “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence”, an international campaign.

Footprints, by Cambodian artist Heak Pheary, was one of four projects presented, and drew on the proverb “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Pheary worked with children in Sangkat Slor Kram village in Siem Reap, introducing them to the topic of domestic violence through film, and conducted discussions with women in the village during the course of a three-day workshop.

The students collected plastic bags, and under Pheary took moulds of the women’s feet – then turned the stories into art.

“I worked with kids because I wanted them to meet with women that have had this problem, so they are connected with each other and so they could learn to recognise what violence is, so they do not continue the violence in their future families,” Pheary says.

Likewise, Pheary adds that for both the children and the audience last night, the foot sculptures served as a reminder of the dignity of those who have experienced abuse, rather than their status as victims.

It’s an ethos at the heart of The Dignity Project, which was first presented last year by German photographer Mona Simon. She took an oft-repeated quote from the chbab srey, the code for girls – “Men are like gold and women are like cloth” – and twisted it. In her photos, the survivors look regal: they wear shiny golden dresses.

“How we reflect on people always leaves a mark,” Simon says. “I wanted them to see themselves as being strong, to give them their dignity back.”

This year, Simon stayed on as a curator for the project, but wanted the perspectives of local artists.

“It’s difficult for a foreigner to come here and work with such a fragile topic,” Simon says. “For me, it made so much more sense to work with Khmer artists who have their own voice, and can reflect so much better on their own culture than we can.”

Simon believes that domestic violence is rooted in what is taught to girls and boys from a young age. “It’s an expression of the inequality and imbalance between male and female energy in society,” she says. “Women have been conditioned to believe they are less.”

The curator says she connected with Pheary’s project because it engaged children in the conversation. “It’s not just the expression of domestic violence that is bad, but the teaching that it’s something not to be discussed,” Simon says.

“Pheary working with these children means that next time they see their father hit their mother they immediately understand something is wrong and they will take that little seed she’s planted through their entire life,” she says.

The Dignity Project is supported by the local NGO CEDAW, which advocates for legal changes to provide protection for survivors of domestic violence.

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