CAMBODIAN Connection

Mixed-media artist Dany Pen uses art to connect with her heritage

A new art show at the Bermuda Society of Arts gallery (BSoA) explores one Cambodian family's heartbreaking legacy of genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

The artwork in 'Deja Vu 1965' — a series of photographs, video work and metalwork is done by mixed-media artist Dany Pen, 23.

Ms Pen moved to Bermuda from Canada a few months ago, when she married a Bermudian.

  • <b>Painful past:</b> Canadian artist Dany Pen. Her exhibit Deja Vu 1965 looks at the legacy of genocide that she inherited after her family fled Cambodia in the 1980s to escape the Khmer Rouge.

    Painful past: Canadian artist Dany Pen. Her exhibit Deja Vu 1965 looks at the legacy of genocide that she inherited after her family fled Cambodia in the 1980s to escape the Khmer Rouge.

  • <strong>Dany Pen</strong> with enlarged photos of family members who were erased by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

    Dany Pen with enlarged photos of family members who were erased by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

  • <strong>Canadian artist</strong> Dany Pen will never know the identities of the family members in the photos behind her.

    Canadian artist Dany Pen will never know the identities of the family members in the photos behind her.


A new art show at the Bermuda Society of Arts gallery (BSoA) explores one Cambodian family's heartbreaking legacy of genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

The artwork in 'Deja Vu 1965' — a series of photographs, video work and metalwork is done by mixed-media artist Dany Pen, 23.

Ms Pen moved to Bermuda from Canada a few months ago, when she married a Bermudian.

"As an artist I have always been interested in how history is attached to identity," said Ms Pen. "A lot of people nowadays disregard history for their current contemporary identity."

But for Ms Pen, her family history stemmed from a very dark place.

Members of her family were part of an estimated two million Cambodians who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in waves of torture, murder and famine throughout the 1970s.

The Khmer Rouge were followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot and others, they ruled between 1975 and 1979.

The exhibit focuses on 1965, as the height of the Khmer culture, before the genocide began.

The Khmer Rouge particularly persecuted anyone with education or the ability to express themselves, including doctors, people who spoke a second language, teachers and artists.

"My mother, Yean Chhan, survived because she was uneducated," said Ms Pen. "My mother led a very humble life in Cambodia. She lived in a jungle village."

She escaped, and it took her three months to reach the safety of an internment camp called Khao-I-Dang over the border in Thailand. The population of the camp reached 160,000 people by 1980.

"She said they would spend time running and hiding, running and hiding," said Ms Pen.

Before leaving home, all Ms Pen's mother could take with her were a few photos shoved into her pockets.

Ms Pen's mother was lucky enough to be allowed refugee status to Canada. Ms Pen was born in 1987, not long after her mother's arrival in Toronto.

"As a child, I could never understand why my mother seemed to know all the Cambodians in Canada," said Ms Pen. "She would always say she met them in 'the camp'.

"For a long time I thought she meant a fun summer camp."

It was only as she got older that she understood that 'camp' referred to an internment camp.

Ms Pen said in school, learning about the Jewish holocaust helped her to understand, to some extent, what had happened to her own family.

"The culture is still in that shock mode," she said. "Nobody really talks about what happened."

She is still learning to live with the loss of culture and identity that her family suffered.

While looking at some of the photos that her mother managed to salvage, she noticed that on dressers and walls in the photos, were more photos.

"I thought I could pull these forward, sharpen it, enhance it and finally put a face to these family members who were executed, murdered, whatever their fate was," she said. "I thought I would finally put a face to the stories I have heard so often."

Some of the people in the indistinct photos had sacrificed their lives to help her mother escape.

Sadly, she quickly discovered that no amount of technology could bring back their faces.

"I was searching for this core truth, this answer, but I did not get it," she said.

"The more I zoomed into the photos the more blurry they became. The images and forms changed."

The results of her work are now displayed at the BSoA.

They are blurry, enlarged photos of men and women and long-haired little girls standing in front of unknown monuments. Their faces cannot be made out.

The photos with their forgotten faces illustrate the Pen family's frustration and loss.

On one wall, Ms Pen has hung a number of copper plates with even more abstract shapes.

These are photographic copper," she explained. "The photograph itself is heated to a certain temperature and literally melts onto the copper."

The images are from a Cambodian textbook that was put together when the refugees arrived in Canada to try to teach their culture to the next generation.

"It was done on very bad paper," she said. "They were disintegrating as I looked at them. I thought I would preserve them by putting them on copper."

She has also etched Cambodian phrases on metal. The meaning has become blurred by Ms Pen's Canadian culture.

"They are things your grandmother might say to you," she said. "For example, when my mother would get mad at us, she would shout, 'don't eat all the rice from the pot and then throw it on the floor'. I did not understand what that meant growing up."

Although Ms Pen may not be able to bring back the faces of her family, through the art show she is helping to keep their memory alive. 'Deja Vu 1965' has also shown in Canada.

"Many people in my generation feel an automatic duty to carry on the legacy of this culture that at the time was almost completely eradicated," she said. "We are in a position to excavate and recover the culture with very little means."

She said she grew up quite humbly in Toronto. Her family did not have a lot of extra money for art supplies.

"For me, I have always been doing art," she said.

"I have always been thinking about art. Growing up I was working with very limited to resources. I had to make due with whatever I had at the time. I worked a lot with found objects."

She went on to study sculpture and installation at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).

She will soon be teaching art and sculpture classes at Kaleidoscope Arts Foundation.

In some ways, Ms Pen's freedom to follow an art career represents a major triumph for her family, since self-expression and art were the very things that many Cambodians were killed for.

"Some of my family members were frightened when I said I wanted to be an artist," she said. "To them it was not something to take lightly."

But she said that she did not want people to focus too heavily on the Cambodianess of the art show.

The wider theme of the show is loss of cultural identity through assimilation, something that people from many different backgrounds can understand.

"You have children today in Bermuda who are also asking, 'where does my family come from? where did we originate from?'" she said. "I believe history is so important to our current identity."

The show runs in studio A and B at the BSoA until September 22.

For more information go to www.artistdanypen.webs.com or e-mail Dany.C.Pen@gmail.com.

For more information about the BSoA visit http://bsoa.powweb.com/.

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