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The Khmer, A Personal Journey: On being Cambodian American

By means of sketches, sound recordings, photographs, and videos, artist James Keth reflects on his time in Cambodia and his identity as a Cambodian American.

Written & Illustrated by
James Keth

Through the Office of Undergrad Research (OUR) Idea Grant, I was able to travel to Cambodia for a month and soak in everything that is Khmer (“K-my”), or Cambodian, culture. By means of sketches, sound recordings, photographs, and videos I was able to record my surroundings and sensations. These were later used as inspiration for the rest of the pieces I made. The trip itself made me reflect on varying aspects of my identity. Identifying as Khmer comes with identifying with its history, one that is tainted by the Khmer Rouge occupation and the genocide that followed. It was a period that affected many, yet it was rarely talked about. Survivors like my parents go on to live a better life, and I am here to tell their story. With this in mind, I was faced with contrasting emotions while I was traveling. I saw a bright, growing Cambodia that wanted to modernize, while I was attached to this idea of remembering the underlying history of death and despair. Everything seemed foreign yet familiar. However, to Cambodians I am not Khmer enough, and to Americans I am not American enough. I am put into this position of having identities in both, yet neither simultaneously. These multidimensional feelings are what gave rise to the work you see today.

Brief Encounters. Watercolor

Have a Seat at the Table. 24 x 30”, Watercolor

Memories of Past and Present. 4 x 8’, Acrylic on Canvas

Explore more aspects of The Khmer and more of James Keth’s artwork at Follow him on instagram @jamesketh15.
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