Journey Crossing the Border – Leang Seckon

REVIEW: Angkor Complex: Cultural Heritage and Post-Genocide Memory in Cambodia

(In Thumbnail: Journey Crossing the Border, 2016 – Leang Seckon)

In the UMMA from Feb 3 to July 28, the Angkor Complex is a profound exhibit that displays the tragedies of lost cultural heritage, colonialism, genocide, and the rebuilding of the memories lost from the shards that remained from post-genocide Cambodia. Through a mix of cultural artifacts and contemporary pieces, the Angkor Complex dutifully shows the emotions inlaid in the terrible death, suffering, and fleeing that resulted from the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge.

Bomb Ponds, 2009 – Vandy Rattana Photographs of ponds in craters made from US bombing during the Vietnam War

Gaining independence from French colonial rule in 1953, Cambodia has had a tumultuous history with the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, millions of people were displaced, forced to work in labor camps, or outright executed in the Killing Fields in the name of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In these labor camps, Cambodian citizens were subject to unending abuse from the soldiers: many died from disease, starvation, overwork, being forced to work through their infections, pregnancies, and sicknesses. The Killing Fields were where many were tortured, executed, and stuffed into mass graves; by any violent means men, women, and their children were slaughtered for their crimes against the regime. The regime also came with the destruction of traditional art, religion, and ways of life. By the end of the genocide most of the artists, buddhist monks, apsara dancers (traditionally female dancers that depicted classical/religious stories) and a quarter of the whole Cambodian population were killed. Due to the nature of these histories, it is absolutely imperative to understand the inseparable, lasting effects that the Khmer Rouge had on the Cambodian people to understand the sorrows and coping on full display throughout the exhibit.

Apsara Warrior, 2004 – Ouk Chim Vichet Displays an Apsara figure built of guns and metal tearing apart a rifle with its hands

While a few of the pieces on display date back to the Khmer Empire (802-1431) or during the time of the French Protectorate of Cambodia (1887-1953), most of the pieces in the exhibit are from contemporary Cambodian artists, many of which are members of the Cambodian diaspora—the dispersal of people from their homeland. These pieces provide the deepest insights into how post-genocide Cambodia copes with the loss of its culture with all of that they regain from the repatriation of colonially seized artifacts and the re-education of Cambodian traditions. My personal favorites are the pieces made  artists that lived through the Khmer Rouge’s regime. They tell their stories of which their pains sorrowfully resonated with the histories I was familiar with in my own Filipino identity. Though most of them regained hope of survival with their immigrations, it came with the loss of their newfound diasporic identities. Such complications become inevitable in the full extent of these tragedies, which shine through in their pieces that depict cultural and religious iconography juxtaposed with modern cityscapes (such as in the thumbnail of this post).

Full Circle, Unbounded Arc, 2015 – Amy Lee Samford A series of terracotta pots that have been broken and attempted to be reassembled with glue and string. It represents the difficulty in rebuilding what has been lost.

Overall, each and every piece of this exhibit carries unmistakeable weight in their messages, and I truly believe the best way to experience this exhibit is to read every piece’s plaque. Each of the experiences from the artists are on full display: their pain, their loss, their coping, their rebuilding. I hope that with this review, you are implored to see the exhibit for yourself and feel the emotions of each piece, for they should be grieved with just as they should be hoped with.

REVIEW: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow’s Enuf

Basement Arts presents their first show of the season: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow’s Enuf  by Ntozake Shange. The 1976 piece is presented as a choreopoem, a unique collection of spoken poems that intertwines staging and fluid movement. Director Sarah Oguntomilade works alongside choreographer Gilayah McIntosh to navigate Ntozake’s lyrical prose to create a piece illuminating the complexities of Black womanhood, friendship, and identity with unwavering grace and power.

In the show, each character is depicted as a color of the rainbow with the addition of brown. They perform some poems alone, but in other moments come together to deliver a unified story, creating a mural of emotions. Characters were acutely aware of one another, offering solidarity when some were delivering heavy-hearted monologues and experiencing saturated joy together for others. The performers breathe life into the individuality of their roles, showcasing a kaleidoscope of personalities that are both vivid and distinct, yet reminiscent of Ntozake’s personal experiences and emotions. Oguntomilade clearly holds a deep understanding of theater and poetry, as her direction was fluid and honest, capturing the essence of each moment poetically and dramatically. Accompanied by McIntosh’s seamlessly exciting choreography, the piece was aesthetically magnificent.

The authenticity of the choreopoem form shines through Ntozake’s meticulously crafted words, breathing life into the performance while speaking radiant visions of her experiences to the audience. The ensemble expertly navigated exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows with unwavering conviction, leaving the audience both beaming with love and holding back a rush of tears. The poems fearlessly take on topics such as abuse, sex, and emotional trauma—it is a show to be emotionally prepared for while inviting audiences to confront the complexities of the African-American experience with unflinching honesty and empathy. The show humbly forms a mosaic of poetic brilliance that lingers long after exiting the theater.

For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow’s Enuf  is a deeply touching piece about the resilience, bravery, friendship, strength, and beauty of African-American women, and went out last week with roaring success. Basement Arts will perform two more shows during the Winter season: Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties directed by Brynn Aaronson and Falsettos directed by Naomi Parr. Auditions and performance dates are posted on @basement_arts on Instagram. 

 

More about Ntozake Shange and her legacy here.

Image thanks to Basement Arts. Performed in the Newman Studio on North Campus. 

REVIEW: Return to Seoul

Return to Seoul is a film that is resonant in its essential question of “how does one consolidate the roots of one’s own identity when they are foreign to oneself?” The movie follows the 25 y/o Freddie as she navigates the country of her birth and its foreign cultures and people. Originally traveling to Korea on a whim with her friend Tena, she decides to pay a visit to the Hammond Adoption Agency that facilitated her adoption. The creation of these international adoption agencies began from the large amount of Korean orphans resulting from the aftermath of the Korean War in the 1950’s. From this, she is contacted by her birth father, who has been separated from Freddy’s birth mother, and she makes the decision to go see him with Tena. However, her trip there is mixed with reluctance, the ambivalence is painted on her face to the point that you can feel her stomach churning. Her worries are justified when she comes up feeling even more disconnected to the family that revels in her return. While her father wants Freddie to stay in Korea, she cannot as she is a French woman with a home, friends, and family back in France. He cannot accept this, however, leaving her discomfort to culminate in an encounter where he follows her to a bar, and she rejects his drunken fatherly embrace, screaming “Don’t touch me!”

Freddie markedly does not fit in with the culture in Korea, and her experiences in her first trip to Korea certainly show this aspect of her the most. She is explicit in her defiance of cultural norms and etiquette, making sure that others know that she is a French woman, not Korean. To this effect, Tena’s translations fail to express the harshness of her words, and the language barrier between her and the Koreans in the movie further complicate her disconnect from the culture. Additionally, Freddie is simply an interesting character, for she swaps between lifestyles, partners, and friends throughout the entirety of the three-part movie. She is brazen, indulging herself in music, soju, and hookups.

One final thing I was intrigued about was the use of extended scenes of music with the stages of Freddie’s life in mind. In any capacity, the music plays an integral role in representing the different phases of her life through all of the different time-skips. It helps to describe how her freedom and independence manifests throughout different genres, characterizing Freddie through her different stages of life: as a young woman moving through adulthood. It’s an intensely resonant narrative device that creates beautiful juxtaposition with her coming of age.

The film screening of Return to Seoul was shown as a part of the Korean Cinema NOW: Diaspora Edition event. These movie showings are presented by the NAM Center on Saturdays in the Michigan Theatre throughout the Winter 2024 semester. If you’re interested in Korean cinema—especially as they relate to the Korean diaspora or diasporic identities in general—then there are still many more films being put on, and they all have free admission with catering from Miss Kim herself (I have to say that the food is really nummy! (˵ •̀ ᴗ – ˵ ) ✧). So, don’t hesitate to indulge in a fun Saturday outing these movie are worth it!

Runtime: 1 hr 59 min 

Rated R

Screenshot of the movie taken from the npr Article: “‘Return to Seoul’ is About Reinvention, not Resolution”

REVIEW: Philippine Culture Night

My friend (left) and I (right) in the PCN Centennial jeepney cutout.

On November 18th, the Filipino American Student Association put on its annual culture night: Philippine Culture Night Centennial. This year’s PCN commemorates the hundredth year of having a filipino club at the University of Michigan, so suffice to say it was a particularly important celebration. It also dealt with a larger context for filipino and filipino american identity with the theme of “who are you?”, seeking to ask the audience what their culture means to them. As a half-filipino american myself, I found that this theme of identity connected greatly to my own personal experience of trying to understand and discover what being filipino means to me.

Wayne State’s Fil-Soc band performance

After speeches from FASA’s co-presidents and cultural executive board chairs and a dinner filled with filipino dishes supplied by M-dining (which surprisingly wasn’t bad), the night’s performances gave way. Beginning with amazing covers of OPM music—original pinoy music—I enjoyed UofM’s own Greenwood Sessions’ renditon of “Raining in Manila” by Lola Amour and Wayne State’s Fil-Soc Band’s rendition of “Hanggang Kailan” by Orange and Lemons (shoutout to my friend Jordan with the super awesome guitar and vocal skillz 😎). OPM is a genre of music that I love; even when I don’t understand the filipino languages that they sing in, connecting to the raw music and culture of filipino karaoke makes the genre invaluable. Besides the music can just be a good vibe, y’know?

Tinikling performers wearing barong right before their performance

Under dimmed lights did Pandanggo sa ilaw come to kick off the dance performances. Pandanggo sa ilaw is a traditional filipino dance where dances balance lit candles on top of their hands and heads to simulate the flight of fireflies. I especially enjoyed their teal and orange costumes—flawlessly unwrinkled thanks to the iron the choreographers took from me (joke lang).

Perhaps one of the most recognizable dances of the night, traditional Tinikling performed with a live Rondalla performance (an ensemble of various stringed lutes). If you’ve ever walked by Mason Posting Wall from 5-10 on Mondays and Wednesdays in the past few months, then you’ve definitely seen these bamboo sticks being clapped while people dodged bruising their ankles. Additionally, Purdue’s own filipino organization performed Maglalatik (a dance performed shirtless while clapping coconut shells strung up on one’s body) while throwing a lot of their ‘behinds’ on stage. For the first time I also saw a live Kulintang gong ensemble performed by PACE-MI (Philippine Arts & Culture Ensemble of Michigan) with their renditions of pre-colonial traditional dances as well.

Now, I also was a performer in this PCN as a part of the Modern Tinikling showcase. Displaying traditions with modern sensibilities, Modern Tinikling performed to the songs “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar, “America has a Problem” by Beyonce, and “Barbie World” by Nicki Minaj (with Aqua). Not to be biased but we were pretty hype. The two modern dances that followed were pretty cool too I guess >_>. In all seriousness, I was impressed with the choreography and fun both modern dance groups showed, for I will be humming “Asan Ka Na Ba” by Zach Tabudlo for months now.

One last note on the performances as well, I was glad to see Hawai’i Club perform their traditional hula dance to celebrate their culture as well. While the night was mostly comprising filipino cultural performances, the point of the night was to celebrate identities and cultures which it was great to see them given a platform to do so.

My FASA Lineage photo in-front of the pagapir fan wall

I would say that my first PCN experience set a high bar for next year. So, I’d especially like to give a big thank you to FASA’s cultural chairs for organizing the event, Philip Churchley and Isabelle Lamug (my ate, pictured above in the middle of the photo). I look forward to my involvement in FASA and their respective events moving forward, and I’m super glad to be a part of this amazing community!

REVIEW: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

7:30pm • Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 • Arthur Miller Theater

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a multimedia, experimental theater performance which I experienced last Wednesday, told the true story of iconic Iranian pop star Fereydoun Farrokhzad’s unsolved murder. At the same time, many stories collided to provide context for and complicate the idea of “solving” a murder mystery. The performance challenged the idea of “knowing” itself, contending with the maxim: “The more you know, the more you understand.” 

This performance was the third in a trilogy written by the Javaad Alipoor Company, named for the show’s co-writer and artistic director (as well as performer), Javaad Alipoor, a British-Iranian artist. At the beginning of the performance, Alipoor spoke to the audience and described himself as a bridge between the audience and the reality of the Iranian diaspora, one which would help us better “understand” a reality potentially foreign to ourselves. Alipoor wove his story and his heritage into the fabric of the performance, winding it around that of Farrokhzad. He also brought in another thread through his collaboration with Raam Emami, better known as King Raam, an Iranian/Canadian musician whose podcast, Masty o Rasty, has a cult following among Persian-speakers and has been streamed more than 20 million times. The show used a combination of media, including spoken word, video, and true-crime podcast to bring the three men’s stories together. 

As I referenced earlier, Alipoor prefaced the show by speaking on our constant desire to know things, in order to understand the world better, and how modern technologies like Wikipedia can serve that desire. For a moment of audience participation, Alipoor asked us all to get out our phones and use Wikipedia to look up a word shouted out by the audience: “cuscus,” a kind of Australian possum. He had us skim the page and click on the first link that looked interesting, and continue doing so, for a minute. He then used this activity to challenge the idea that reading anything on the Internet, or gaining any kind of knowledge, will necessarily allow us to understand another reality. By framing the performance in this way, Alipoor challenged the proposition that by watching a multimedia performance about the murder of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, we would somehow “understand” his murder, or the broader set of stories which form the Iranian diaspora. 

I found this performance completely fascinating, and it made me think more deeply about how I consume and use information in my daily life. For me, it highlighted the importance of cultural humility: a balance between awareness and appreciation of other ways of being, and the knowledge that we can never truly understand another’s experiences. In the absence of understanding, empathy is essential. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World pointed out that even in our highly digital, information-saturated lives, there are some who have been made invisible to us, and it is our obligation to be aware of (and assist in) their struggles.

REVIEW: DakhaBrakha

7:30pm • Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 • Hill Auditorium

Seeing DakhaBrakha last Friday night at Hill Auditorium was a unique musical experience. DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian folk-punk quartet composed of artists Marko Galanevych, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko, Nina Garenetska, that blends genres and sounds to create a musical signature which the band refers to as “ethno-chaos.” Their work derives from and pays tribute to Ukrainian folk music while existing in its own space of reinvention and joyful experimentation. Friday’s performance was dedicated to the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people, a message which the band conveyed through both their music and the visual representations which played behind them as they performed. 

The performance followed a soft narrative arc, moving from a serious depiction of Ukraine in the midst of war to a hopeful glimpse at what a post-war Ukraine might look like. At first, the tone was almost solemn. The great destruction and loss faced by the Ukrainian people were juxtaposed with the resilience and vibrance of the culture and nation that empower them to continue fighting. Animations created by Ukrainian artists depicted stylized warriors swirling around the band as they performed, or eagles transforming into warplanes as they flew across the stage. For me, the most powerful imagery was during a song dedicated to those who are fighting for Ukraine’s freedom. The song featured a compilation of videos depicting dozens of Ukrainian soldiers in what seemed like small moments of lightness: smiling for the camera, laughing together, putting up peace signs and throwing their arms around one another. The last few songs looked forward into a future where Ukraine has peace and freedom. As the artists put it, after the winter comes spring, which they captured in a beautiful song that opened with startlingly realistic bird calls. 

This was my first time listening to music with Ukrainian roots, which made the concert particularly exciting for me. The range of vocalizations employed by the artists was fascinating, and paired with their complicated, unfamiliar harmonies, I found myself completely absorbed in the aural experience of the performance. The song “Vynnaya Ya” exemplified this range: I loved how Galanevych’s voice bounced between growling bass and high, trumpet-like scatting. 

In conclusion, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see this spectacular group perform in Ann Arbor, and admire DakhaBrakha’s commitment to uplifting Ukrainian voices and culture.