Jean-Baptiste PHOU wants you to think with him. Not like him – with him. Actually, with his collaborating artist SAO Sreymao, too. More than that, he wants you to participate in your explorations of identity, culture, exile, familial drama, language, memories, and all the uncomfortable relationships that make up the stars in our minds’ private constellations. Using his melodic French-Cambodian voice, PHOU invites us to enter the space between culture and history, which are the main factors for constructing collective and personal identities. They serve as points of departure for how one perceives others and sees oneself. It is seldom a smooth road.
He strikes an emotional chord with Cambodians (as well as the rest of the world) with his new work and has already garnered an immediate and enthusiastic response.
Who are these artists inviting us to jump into our already jumbled minds? And how are we supposed to do it?
Jean-Baptiste PHOU, born in 1981 to Sino-Cambodian parents, is a French-Cambodian actor, author, and director who has appeared in films and stages in France, Cambodia, and the United States. He was a young adult when he learned about the history of his family during the genocide and war of the Khmer Rouge. He wrote and directed his first play Cambodia, Here I Am, then adapted and performed The Anarchist from Soth Polin’s novel. His writing and advocacy for truth-telling regarding Cambodian history are exemplified by The Incident of the Fake Smiles of S-21 and his collaborations with Cambodian Living Arts as dramaturge and artistic director.
He performed on stage in the musicals Where Elephants Weep and Winds of Angkor. His film credits include the narration of the English version of The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh and FLA (Faire: l’amour) by Djinn Carrénard. There is much more, so go ahead and Google him.
“When I think of our history, I want to explode, to draw a line on humanity, and start all over again. Even if I am part of the generation that has not experienced all these horrors, I am still dependent on them”. – Jean-Baptiste PHOU in an interview with LePetitJournal.com.
Jean-Baptiste Phou – Photo by Tessa Polder
SAO Sreymao’s story is recognizable to our readers. She was born on the Thai border in the Site 2 refugee camp in 1986 and graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak’s School of Visual and Applied Arts in Battambang in 2006. As a woman, she has paved the harsh path for other female Khmer artists. She has become a multidisciplinary artist exploring painting, digital drawing, photography, sculpture, and performance art, using personal and cultural memories and the evolving physical and psychological landscapes of Cambodian urban and rural communities. She frequently collaborates with other artists and has published several graphic novels.
Sreymao was an artist fellow of Sylt Foundation and undertook a residency in Sylt, Germany, in 2017 and a recipient of the Dam Dos Grant 2018 of Cambodian Living Arts. She was a participant in Sa Sa Art Projects’- Contemporary Art Class in 2016, and her most recent group exhibition is Shaking Land and Water, which is in Singapore and as a solo exhibition at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik in/by YK Art House in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Performances include “Demand” Instinstitut Francais du Cambodge, “Pressure,” FT Gallery & Studio (2021), “Cities,” Treeline Urban Resort “Golden Pig Year,” Sa Sa Art Projects (2019) “Under the Water,” Sa Sa Art Projects (2018) “Day Dream,” Khmer Sense (2018); “Body of Sorrow,” Sa Sa Art Projects (2018); “Facing the Climate Change,” the Ministry of Environment of Cambodia (2018), and Embassy of Sweden (2017); and “Kraanh Norneal,” Sa Sa Art Projects (2017).
You can find more information, art, and videos on her site.
កល្យាណមិត្ត២ | Best Friend 2, 2021 by Sao Sreymao
Echoes from the Stars is inspired by audience responses to a recent art film, My Mothers Tongue, created by Jean-Baptiste in collaboration with Sao Sreymao. It is a participatory digital installation by Jean-Baptiste (JB) (Cambodia) and Theerawat Klangjareonchai (Meng) (Thailand), commissioned by Mekong Cultural Hub.
Echoes from the Stars creates a star map made from participants’ contributions. Participants can explore the constellations of places, relationships, and themes that the map reveals and listen to the messages sent to the sky as if they are echoes from the stars. Anyone can record their message to be included, and the list of languages included is long.
The site is exquisite in its simplicity.
1. Watch the film.
My Mother’s Tongue explores the delicate relationship between a mother and son who don’t speak the same language until something unlocks when she suddenly falls ill. The emotional journey unfolds through a series of vignettes that draw the viewer deeper into a son’s inner world, seeking understanding and being understood.
A film by Jean-Baptiste Phou, with illustrations by Sao Sreymao.
With the support of l’Institut français du Cambodge and Cambodian Living Arts
In French with English and Khmer subtitles
Translation in Burmese, Lao, Mandarin, Thai, and Viet available.
2. Participate by recording your message to a person you cannot reach for whatever reason. Speak the words that have meaning to you and use whatever your feelings may be. Your message will be turned into a star and displayed on an interactive star map.
3. Enter the star map and listen to messages that people have recorded. You can explore by star coordinates, country, language, or the type of recipient (parent, family member, child, friend, enemy, spouse, lover, partner, or someone in your work environment.
The film is narrated in French by PHOU. The script can also be downloaded in several languages. PHOU’s voice is both soothing and haunting. Below are a few of the strong images in the film with the digital art of SAO Sreymao.
The current Cambodian exhibition of this work is in Phnom Penh:
តំណ By a Thread
A collaboration between Jean-Baptiste PHOU & SAO Sreymao
Curated by Dana LANGLOIS
Exhibition opening and film screening 4pm Sunday, 30 October 2022
Daily film screenings 6pm 31 October – 27 November 2022
Artist Talk 6:30pm Saturday, 19 November 2022
Closing performance 6:30pm Sunday, 27 November 2022
Java Creative Cafe Toul Tom Poung
53 Street 468, Phnom Penh
A thread connects, binds things together – it can also repair a torn garment. In Cambodia a red thread is tied around the wrist during some religious rituals to protect the wearer from bad luck or as a reminder to be compassionate. For this exhibition a thread is a symbol of connection and reminds us that we are not alone.
By a Thread is the work of artists Jean-Baptiste PHOU and SAO Sreymao that explores the uncomfortable process of confronting loss and regret. It was developed at a time when both artists were affected by a sharp sense of isolation during the covid-19 pandemic. Jean-Baptiste was working on a sound piece exploring language as an investigation of his relationship with his mother. After his mother suddenly passed away, he was faced not only with his grief but also with the challenge of how to articulate it in the sound artwork about the very relationship he just lost. In a similar state of mind, while separated from family and reflecting on the importance of our limited time, Sreymao felt that it was an inevitability for her to explore the topic of loss – she describes it as a feeling on her skin when an idea reaches its fullness and must emerge. So, when Jean-Baptiste approached her with his project to add images to his sound piece she immediately responded. Their shared anxiety led to an intense moment of creativity and collaboration.
Together they produced the film My Mother’s Tongue.
Jean-Baptiste describes the film as a dilation of time that asks the viewer to be fully engaged to experience the entirety of the work. With a background in theater, he is adept at using time as a medium – stretching it and slowing it down. The animated drawings of Sreymao intensify this effect on time as an invisible hand reveals characters caught in small moments that become large and significant. The viewer feels this process like a memory forming in front of their eyes as details become clear, sometimes erased and re-drawn.
For By a Thread the artists have expanded the body of work and proposed different ways to engage with it including still images, sculpture, public participation, and performance. They have selected and printed a series of images from the film – slowing time down to a complete stop. The viewer can move at their own pace and while disconnected from the film-narrative they may form their own from personal experiences. Nearby, a boat constructed from wire floats in the air. Tied with red thread, anonymous messages hang from the underside of the boat. The public is invited to write something that they wish they could have said to someone they care about. The boat is a symbolic emissary and through a live performance at the end of the exhibition will offer a shared moment of relief and comfort. The public may also record their messages online through the artist-designed website. The recordings are transformed into a star in a galaxy of other messages that can be listened to by anyone.
Together Jean-Baptiste and Sreymao have approached their artmaking with empathy, weaving together narrative, pensive visuals, and personal actions. Throughout the body of work, there is the sense of a shared human experience – of loss, regret, and the search for resolution.
The world is full of artists and writers exploring the themes that PHOU articulates in this work. It has always been this way. Cambodian artists, poets, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and performers openly explore these themes in their admirable work – many of which are highlighted on MagialCambodia.com.
“Memory is a melodrama from which no one is exempt,” writes Yiyun Li. Amy Tan directly explains to her readers why she writes the way she does in the statement, Mother Tongue. Silently and publicly, we spend our lives trying to understand our place in the world and the comedy and tragedy that is part of our cultural and family histories. Our capacity to console extends only to what we can do to console ourselves.
Yiyun Li’s words in Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life echoed with me as I was soaking in PHOU’s work:
“I have a troubled relationship with time. The past I cannot trust because it could be tainted by my memory. The future is hypothetical and should be treated with caution. The present – what is the present but a constant test: in this muddled in-between, one struggles to understand what about oneself has to be changed, what accepted, what preserved. Unless the right actions are taken, one seems never to pass the test to reach the after.”
Most of us live in the in-between. People like Jean-Baptiste PHOU and SAO Sreymao have the guts to seek the right actions.
This work asks us to step out of the in-between and seek along with them.
May you think about a message you can record to add to the Echoes from the Stars?