Traces of Trauma: Cambodian Visual Culture and National Identity in the Aftermath of Genocide

Hardback: $80.00
ISBN-13: 9780824856069
Published: November 2019
Paperback: $32.00
ISBN-13: 9780824888459
Published: September 2020

Additional Information

206 pages | 29 color, 7 b&w illustrations
  • About the Book
  • How do the people of a morally shattered culture and nation find ways to go on living? Cambodians confronted this challenge following the collective disasters of the American bombing, the civil war, and the Khmer Rouge genocide. The magnitude of violence and human loss, the execution of artists and intellectuals, the erasure of individual and institutional cultural memory all caused great damage to Cambodian arts, culture, and society. Author Boreth Ly explores the “traces” of this haunting past in order to understand how Cambodians at home and in the diasporas deal with trauma on such a vast scale.

    Ly maintains that the production of visual culture by contemporary Cambodian artists and writers—photographers, filmmakers, court dancers, and poets—embodies traces of trauma, scars leaving an indelible mark on the body and the psyche. Her book considers artists of different generations and family experiences: a Cambodian-American woman whose father sent her as a baby to the United States to be adopted; the Cambodian-French filmmaker, Rithy Panh, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, whose film The Missing Picture was nominated for an Oscar in 2014; a young Cambodian artist born in 1988—part of the “post-memory” generation. The works discussed include a variety of materials and remnants from the historical past: the broken pieces of a shattered clay pot, the scarred landscape of bomb craters, the traditional symbolism of the checkered scarf called krama, as well as the absence of a visual archive.

    Boreth Ly’s poignant book explores obdurate traces that are fragmented and partial, like the acts of remembering and forgetting. Her interdisciplinary approach, combining art history, visual studies, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, religion, and philosophy, is particularly attuned to the diverse body of material discussed, including photographs, video installations, performance art, poetry, and mixed media. By analyzing these works through the lens of trauma, she shows how expressions of a national trauma can contribute to healing and the reclamation of national identity.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Boreth Ly, Author

      Boreth Ly is associate professor of Southeast Asian art history and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
    • David P. Chandler, Series Editor

    • Rita Smith Kipp, Series Editor

  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • In this groundbreaking book, Ly presents a number of creative artists whose complex and innovative work is fully worth much broader attention. But perhaps more valuably, to my mind, she gives us tools to understand them on their own terms. . . . Ly moves easily through complex iconographies that mix Hindu, Theravada Buddhist, and animist influences of texts ranging from antiquity to the present. Adding a finely-honed craft as a reader of art, familiarity with contemporary Cambodian artists, and a theoretically informed approach to trauma studies, she has made a truly original contribution to the study of the effects of collective and individual tragedy. Her writing is patient and straightforward, a pleasure to read. . . . Ly provides something precious in this book. Indeed, she has cultivated an original voice, cosmopolitan but entirely Cambodian, which contributes to the study of trauma and national identity.
      —Joseph Mai, Clemson University, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, Issue 32 (March 2022)
    • Boreth Ly addresses a most complex subject—overcoming national trauma after the Khmer Rouge genocide—in a challenging and refreshing way. The result is a brilliantly lucid, splendidly readable, and empathetic piece of work that engages not only with history and ethnography (oral, textual, and visual), but also with critical theories and cultural studies. The book itself is a piece of art.
      —Abidin Kusno, York University
    • Boreth Ly’s new book is a seminal work in the fields of Southeast Asian studies, Asian American studies, and trauma studies. Ly has produced a unique way of understanding the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979) that Ly himself lived through as a young boy. The book looks at the Khmer Rouge through the artwork of both survivors and those killed by the genocidal regime. The book becomes an archive of this artwork through interviews with survivors of the regime, including a few artist/survivors who have become famous transnational artists. Ly’s direct experience and immersion in the field of trauma studies leads him to re-define the Freudian notion of trauma in a uniquely Cambodian way, focusing on the broken body and the loss of courage rather than seeing the body as secondary to mental states. Ly’s contributions here are both paradigm-changing and brilliant.
      —Laurie J. Sears, professor emerita, University of Washington
    • The trauma of the Khmer Rouge mass murder of its own people refuses to remain contained in the past, escaping to haunt the present and future. In his elegant and delicate analyses, Cambodian art historian Boreth Ly asks Adorno’s question: How can one go on living in the aftermath of genocide? Ly’s answer: By working through the insistent importance and unsung beauty of everyday objects key to Cambodian identity—clay pots, palm trees, and krama scarves—to make extraordinary art in painting, installation, photography, and dance. With attention to the visual culture of a past that bleeds into the present, Ly pays homage to a contemporary art that bears constant traces of “broken bodies,” especially female ones. Like defaced ancient statues, “marked by scars of trauma and thus, paradoxically, both resilient and fragile,” Ly’s writing from the diaspora breaks the heart, while inspiring with insight.
      —Angela Zito, New York University
    • Born in Cambodia, Ly draws on his traumatic experience as a boy during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975–79) to craft an original, empathetic, and fascinating ethnographic archive of the artwork of survivors of the genocide. . . . Including not only illustrations but also interviews with artists, this book is rich with details about artists and the art that is freeing Cambodian culture from its scarred past.
      —P. Passariello, emerita, Centre College, CHOICE 58:1 (September 2020)
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