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Deporting Cambodians then and now

"Scars and Stripes" at the Spaceworks Gallery

Installation shot showing one wall of the “Scars and Stripes” exhibition. Photo courtesy Spaceworks Tacoma

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Little is known about the United States' involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War or about the aftermath - the refugees, the deportees, the Americans in exile. The exhibition "Scars and Stripes" at Spaceworks Gallery examines all of that through photographs, paintings, video and performance art (readers may recall the preview article in the Mach 9 Weekly Volcano).

Seldom have I seen so much information presented in so many inventive ways in so little space. This exhibition, curated by Silong Chhun, founder of Red Scarf Revolution, features photos and text from "Khmer American: Naga Sheds Its Skin," an exhibition created by the Khmer American community and Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, and artworks by Raisa Nosova that explore the impact of war, genocide, resettlement, and deportation of Cambodian Americans then and now.

Museum-like, the exhibition is arranged in five timeline sections: "Peace", "War X Genocide", "Refugee Camps", "Resettlement", and "Deportation."

In the "Peace" section we see both written and photographic histories of Cambodia before the war, and a wonderfully delicate papercut picture by Lauren Iida of a shoe vendor. She is on her knees, and shoes are laid out on the ground in front of her. Everything is in tones of white and gray.

In the "War X Genocide" area we see two artworks. One is "The Khmer Rouge," a two-art painting in embroidery, paint, fabric and thread on canvas by Anida You Ali, which presents delicate images of barbed wire. A companion piece is "Behind the Fence," an oil painting by Raisa Nosova of a woman behind a barbed wire fence in bold strokes of blue, ochre and pink on a black background. The woman is as see-through as the fence, as if she has become the fence or the fence is now her.

The "Refugee Camps" section has photos of overcrowding among Cambodian children and families in Camp Pendleton in San Diego and of refugees in the Philippine refugee camp in Bataan.

The "Resettlement" section asks the question, "What would you do if you were plucked down in the middle of a strange land with strange people and no knowledge of the language or customs or how to survive?" Evidence of answers to that question is given in the form of eye-opening photographs and newspaper clippings.

The final section, "Deportation," examines through art and video the plight of Cambodians who escaped to the United States when they were young children and who as teenagers were deported back to Cambodia, a land foreign to them, usually because of misdemeanors. In this section, we see Stuart Isett's photo series "The Lost Boyz of Cambodia" and the video "Studio Revolt," a series of three short films, two with Cambodian teens who consider themselves Exiled Americans talking about their lives, and a third a hard-hitting spoken poem. Also in this section are another painting by Nosova and another papercut piece by Iida.

This show documents a set of histories many of us may not recognize. It's time we did.

"Scars and Stripes," 1-5 p.m., Monday-Friday; 1-9 p.m., Third Thursday, through April 20, Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.682.1735, spaceworkstacoma.com

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