Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex” is the latest and one of the most brilliant analyses of global North’s codependent behavior towards the South.
After returning from a recent trip to Phnom Penh, Cole’s article was the perfect antidote to the absurd disparities in Cambodia. Since my last visit in 2005, there was a mushrooming of coffee houses affordable only for those on expat salary, as are luxury hotels, SUVs, gated high rise condos. Or perhaps I felt guilty from being driven around by a hired driver all week, or getting wined and dined inside expat bubbles. I was a willing participant in an economy propped up by foreign investments and aid.
As an international development professional, I experienced the joys of being able to affect positive change in a foreign country and I also know the local fallouts that comes with being *from* a foreign country. We often hear that interrogating our own privileges is the first step in decolonizing ourselves. But what then? How could we change the system so it is no longer business-as-usual? After all, Cole didn’t call it a “savior industrial complex” for no reason.
Guilty as Charged
There is nothing easier than slapping together a critique by just using pictures in a PowerPoint presentation. The one I prepared begins with a question — what do we associate with Cambodia? The Killing Fields? Angkor Wat? I added a story about the astronomical financial cost of the Khmer Rouge trial (100 million Euros and counting) and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, both refer to injustices done in the name of democracy and freedom. I then move onto an analysis of the marketization of art and design, global imperatives of young contemporary artists, and new works by Cambodian American artists. The talk ends with Studio Revolt’s My Asian Americana. A jab at the unusually harsh repatriation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it is a video that showcases the pledge of allegiance by “Exiled Americans.”
Only when I had to explain why the arts has been “resuscitated” by a Cambodian arts organization, did I slip in the fact that Khmer Rouge killed 90% of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals. It seems like a footnote. While this is not to deny the gravity of genocide, it re-enforces that what happens in Cambodia is not “out there” but that we are all implicated in what goes on in Cambodia. Instead of pointing fingers to another boogie man (be it the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen’s government, or faceless corporations that are carving up concessions in Cambodia), the circle comes back to us. The United States’s secret bombing of Cambodia between 1969-1975 led to the rise of Khmer Rouge. A 1996 immigrant law, coupled with a 2002 repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia, results in the deportation of hundreds of Cambodian Americans.
There are over 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia. For a country of 13 million people, it’s the second most per capita, after Rwanda. How many of us do-gooders are willing to turn the gaze back to ourselves, our own governments, and the destructive policies that we are a part of?
A Translingual Hiccup
Sa Sa Art Projects is an art space created by Stiev Selapak, six young Khmer graduates of a photography workshop in 2007. Beginning in 2010, Stiev Selapak rented two adjacent residential units in The Building. Sa Sa Art Projects hosts arts residencies, exhibitions, and workshops. We were struck by the beauty of the photographs, graffiti on the walls, and a tall sculpture made with found objects. Everything was picture perfect. Our informant, the eloquent director of Sa Sa Art Projects, gave us a run down of their documentary project around the neighborhood, done in collaboration with an UK-based group, Incidental.
When we first entered the space, a little boy who lives in an apartment downstairs came in with us. During the time we were there, he was playing by himself. After a while, he started to take apart one of the smaller installations that was not attached to a wall. Part of me didn’t want to stop him. Why should this little boy not be another legitimate participant?
The exquisiteness in which Sa Sa Art Projects serves as a place for artists/architects made me question my own reactions — I was looking for what I might call a “translingual hiccup.” I want to believe that it not possible to have the perfect translation. To navigate between contemporary art in Phnom Penh and New York, should it not be asymmetrical and frustrating clumsy? Can it be so easy to establish and maintain hypothetical equivalences between words and their meanings? Since the global North has made Cambodia out to be a victim, shouldn’t it follow that we can’t always understand Cambodians’ motivations and desires. Yet in every which way, we act as if we are on equal footing. The child’s dismantling of an exhibit might serve as an analogy for a translingual hiccup. Would this moment of non-recognition be an opening of space to co-create a pedagogy of liberation for both the colonizer and the colonized?