Season of Cambodia Festival Explores Themes of Forgiveness and Renewal

Season of Cambodia Festival Explores Themes of Forgiveness and Renewal
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia performs "The Legend of Apsara Mera"
(Photo by Anders Jiras)

Forgiveness has been one of the dominant themes of the recently concluded Broadway season. “I think I’ve had enough of revenge,” says the little heroine of “Matilda” when given the opportunity to push back against her tormentors. And the protagonists of “Kinky Boots” — a drag queen and a young man who inherits a failing shoe factory — allow the statute of limitations to expire on paternal sins.

But these fictional acts of catharsis pale in comparison to an event that occurred on May 1 outside Buell Hall on the campus of Columbia University. Against a natural spring backdrop of cherry blossoms and blue sky, “Flowering Parachute Skirt,” an art sculpture and installation by Cambodian artist Leang Seckon, was the central figure in a “happening” of reconciliation. Fashioned from a parachute from the Vietnam War that had been recovered in the artist’s native village, the work transformed a tool of war into one of peace. The top half included a skull capped with a helmet, and a bodice of war materiel and ephemera; the lower half a skirt of parachute silk embroidered with flowers. 


The ritual included blessings by Buddhist monks, moving speeches by Vietnam War vets and survivors of the Cambodian genocide, and the singing of “Amazing Grace.” Then the sculpture was led in procession through a campus that, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, had been the site of passionate anti-war protests. The event was just one of dozens making up Season of Cambodia, a multi-disciplinary festival of music, visual art, dance, film, and theater from the Southeast Asian country. It continues throughout New York City through the end of May.

More than 125 Cambodian artists are participating in this unprecedented spring flowering in such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Governor’s Island, the Guggenheim, Lincoln Center, and the World Financial Center.  The first-of-its kind festival is the brainchild of Cambodian Living Arts, a collective founded by Arn Chorn-Pond, a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor who took it upon himself to retrieve the shattered arts legacy once peace had been restored to his war-torn country. The organization is based in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

There was a lot of work to do. The American bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War had led to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who, in the course of nearly four years, from 1975 to 1979, had decimated the population by a quarter and killed off or exiled 90 percent of the country’s artists. Today, almost 50 percent of Cambodia’s population is under 25. 

“They know nothing of the severe trauma which their parents and grandparents underwent,” said Phlouen Prim, the executive director of Cambodian Living Arts and CEO of the festival, adding that it is a very difficult balancing act to tell these tragic stories and yet not be burdened by them. “We must honor the recent past but also acknowledge that there is a new generation of Cambodian artists who are defining their country in ways that are just not about the American bombing and the Khmer Rouge. There are as well the temples of Angkor Wat and a new and contemporary perspective of Cambodia to present to the world. ”

The central premise of the festival is the fusion of the country’s heritage as represented by Angkor Wat — a complex of temples that is one of the greatest historical monuments of the world — with art born out of deep pain and suffering, and a hopeful sense of the future. The Season of Cambodia represents a new chapter in the country’s evolving cultural identity. “We always positioned the festival to be stories about artists who are now shaping the country,” said Prim. An important facet is the collaboration between an older generation, known as “The Masters,” working in tandem with a group of up-and-coming artists.

As part of this synergistic exchange of ideas, there are 10 young visual artists who are in residence in temporary studios constructed on Governor’s Island and whose works will be on display there at the end of the month. Among the best known of the artists included in the Season of Cambodia is Sopheap Pich, 42, who lives and works in Phnom Penh and who has become the first Cambodian to be exhibited at the Met. His show, “Cambodian Rattan,” will be on there through July 7.

“The development of Cambodia’s cultural life will come from the Diaspora, from people like Pich,” said Prim, noting that the artist, whose family escaped from the Khmer Rouge, first to Thailand in 1979 and then to the United States, chose to return to his native country 10 years ago. Pich is part of what Prim calls “the Broken Generation,” those artists who are intent on helping their country to heal and move forward.

Another Cambodian luminary is Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, a member of the Royal Family and a former prima ballerina in the Khmer tradition. The weekend of May 2-4, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia will appear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the princess’s dance piece, “The Legend of Apsara Mera,” which tells origin stories with sumptuous movement, gorgeous costumes, and haunting music.

“The few artists who survived have a strong urge to recover their culture,” said Prim, noting that Cambodia Living Arts is a grass roots and indigenous initiative — it is not spearheaded by the government and is funded by foundations and individuals. “The tenacity and dedication of people like Arn and Leang are truly impressive,” he added. 

He recalled that Leang’s parachute skirt was embroidered with flowers sewn on by a circle of expatriate Cambodian women. “Watching them do this, with the older women talking to the younger women, born in America, about their lives and the events that happened in their country, was truly moving. ”

For a full schedule of events of the Season of Cambodia Festival, go to