Seven years ago, Khmer artist and poet Chath Piersath and artist Mary Oestereicher Hamill began The Cambodia War Widows Project, a project that explored photography as a form of art therapy and focused on widowed women in rural Cambodia. Today, the series of photographs, as well as paintings by Piersath, are currently installed at Sangker Gallery in Battambang.
The project stems largely from Piersath’s strong personal ties to the Cambodian war widows – he is a refugee, while his mother and two sisters are all widows of war. In 1971, Piersath was born in what is now the Banteay Meanchey Province, where he fled the Khmer Rouge by crossing the border into Thailand. At the age of 10, he reached the USA and didn’t return to his homeland for 13 years. Piersath always dreamed of returning to Cambodia and helping to rebuild his country, and in 1994 he moved back and volunteered for the Cambodian-American National Development Organization, which helps alleviate poverty. The Cambodia War Widows Project began with Piersath simply having conversations with and collecting stories from war widows in a village near where he grew up and where his sister now lives. While conversing with widows and developing ideas for the project, Piersath met Hamill, a New York-based Princeton-graduate, who first visited Cambodia in 2006. The two decided to collaborate and combine
Piersath’s plans for an oral history project with Hamill’s multi-media based practice.
In Khmer, “widow” (written “មេម៉ាយ,” and pronounced “may my”) is the same word as “divorcée,” and both are treated with equal disrespect. In the words of Piersath, “women who lose their husbands are often looked down upon. They face social isolation and discrimination.” Though it is hard to be a widow anywhere, it is particularly hard in Cambodia – society is superstitious of widows and blames divorcees for their misfortune. Widows are also discouraged from remarrying and often are forced out of economic necessity to return home and live with their families, a further disgrace. The Cambodia War Widows Project creates a community amid previously socially isolating circumstances, where widows can discuss their losses, with Piersath and among each other.
The final artworks are prints on pillows that hang from the ceiling and feature objects that remind the women of their husbands. The faint blue prints on the dangling pillows appear dreamlike and faded, resembling the memories that the objects hold for these women of both their previous lives and their deceased husbands. Piersath chose to use pillows because of their significance in marriage – during a wedding, it is Khmer tradition for the bride and groom to place their hands together on pillows and have strings tied around their wrists to bless the newlyweds. Later, when the couple shares a bed, each has his or her own pillow that, when the individual dies, is left behind empty and reminiscent of the union’s missing half.
Piersath says, “My interest is to look at how they [the widows] adjusted their lives to these losses and how they manage to survive, and what lessons other people in the world can learn from them.” The project’s installation does portray small and beautiful hints of the intimate and moving stories of this group of women. More importantly, however, the project aids in creating positive dialogue in this rural village. Although perhaps a very small act, bringing these women together, to share, connect, and build out of their loss is an empowering act that the installation only begins to capture.