Travel

The New Cambodian Artists

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Siem Reap is best known to tourists in Cambodia as the city nearest Angkor Wat, the massive 12th century temple complex that draws over two million visitors a year. 

Despite the hype, art to be found in Siem Reap is far more diverse than ancient carvings and soaring stone structures.

Nestled back in the calm residential streets of the city is the new dance studio of the New Cambodian Artists. The group is currently made up of five female dancers who train in both classical Cambodian dance, known as Apsara dance, and contemporary dance, inspired by modern dance methodologies of the Western cannon. They describe their style as “Apsara fusion”.

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Their unique medley of traditional Cambodian movement and authentic improvisation is mesmerizing and the young dancers — four of the group are full-time students — perform with the confidence, calm abandon and focus of seasoned performers. Invited into the studio to watch a rehearsal, I was convinced the piece I was witnessing was company repertoire, something performed countless times. Instead, what I saw was created on the spot, a piece of electric, living art. 

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The Founder and Artistic Director of the New Cambodian Artists is Bob Ruijzendaal, an artist originally from the Netherlands, who has worked in theater for decades. He recognized that dancers in the city of Siem Reap needed a space to develop as artists. With little funding available from the Cambodian government to develop and sustain new dance companies, performance art in Siem Reap is often geared toward tourists. A new kind of organization was needed. 10 dancers came together to form the New Cambodian Artists.

The company has grown since then, with dancers now focusing on the mission of empowering women through dance. “We think it’s very important to spread this message and spread the new art form as well,” said Company Leader, Khong Srey Neang. The first piece the company created commenting on the status of women in the country was called Swept Away. The piece tells the story of women bound by expectation and tradition to work in the home who dream of other opportunities. In 2016, the company worked with a visiting choreographer to create a piece about domestic violence in partnership with the Dignity Project through the Phnom Penh-based nonprofit, CEDAW.  The company also recently performed during UN Women's He for She Arts Week in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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The New Cambodian Artists presents a platform for expression, creativity and growth for young artists in Siem Reap. “We hope we can create something to benefit society,” said Neang. Despite the negative stigma sometimes associated with pursuing dance outside of the classical tradition in Cambodia, there is power to be found in the diligence and discipline of working for a dream. The company also maintains a focus on education and learning with the dancers working with select visiting choreographers to explore new movement styles. “If they are strong,” said Neang, “they can be role models. If they become role models, more people, especially young women, can look up to them.”

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Learn more about the New Cambodian Artists

The New Cambodian Artists at UN Women He for She Arts Week in June, 2017. 

Inspiring Organizations in Kolkata, India Moving Against Human Trafficking

 Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film.

Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film.

While living in Kolkata, India for several years, I had the opportunity to learn from some incredibly inspiring change makers, social entrepreneurs and artists creating and sustaining ways to make the world  better place for survivors of trafficking and particularly, women and girls.

January is human trafficking awareness month and instead of discussing trafficking, I want to highlight the work of grassroots organizations that continue to inspire with their powerful counter-trafficking and empowerment programs. 

 

1. Kolkata Sanved

This amazing organization harnesses the power of dance and dance movement therapy to heal, empower and transform individuals into active citizens and change makers.

Since 2004, this groundbreaking nonprofit organizatio has been brining participatory, joyful and deeply healing classes to individuals of all ages in need of psychosocial rehabilitation and care. Kolkata Sanved works primarily with youth who are survivors of human trafficking and violence and in partnership with various organizations including shelter homes, government institutions, schools and groups operating on railway platforms. They have implemented programs in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia. Highly skilled dance therapy practitioners, many of whom are survivors of violence,  are trained by the organization and through their work become role models, healers and activists at the forefront of anti-violence and women's rights movements. 

We are currently creating a dance + documentary film with Kolkata Sanved so highlight the powerful work of their dance therapy practitioners. 

2. Hamari Muskan South Kolkata                                                                              

South Kolkata Hamari Muskan is an anti-trafficking organisation working in Kolkata since 2009. It works in the red light areas of Sonagachi and Bowbazar with the children, adolescents and women survivors to protect them from different forms of violence and abuse and to build their confidence and resilience. The growing organization has built a safe, child-friendly Day Care Learning Center which offers an array of educational classes and activities with the goal of preparing children from 2 1/2 to 6 years of age to be ready to enroll in mainstream schools. Their nutrition program, art-based therapy and counseling sessions and their impressive resilience-buildig programs which include self defense, karate, photography, music, dance, computer and even driving classes provide an impressive set of services for youth. 

3. Her Future Coalition 

Made By Survivors of now Her Future Coalition! Their mission is to provide shelter, education and employment to survivors of human trafficking and extreme abuse so they can become and remain free forever. They engage in long term, intensive interventions with the goal of financial independence. Their programs give survivors the tools to overcome tremendous stigma and to advance far above the poverty line, transforming their identity and social status. Shop their gorgeous collection of jewelry - the gifts that build futures. Each piece lovingly made by a young artisan in Kolkata. Since 2010, Her Future Coalition has offered training in goldsmithing and jewelry design to survivors and vulnerable women. They now train and employ women in three locations in India and one in Thailand with jewelers breaking gender barriers as some of South Asia's first women goldsmiths.  After completing the training, women are able to earn a wage comparable to a college graduate.  Some of the jewelers we have trained have over $15,000 in the bank!

4. The Loyal Workshop

This workshop, housed in one of Kolkata's historic buildings in the north of the city, creates stunning, ethical leather bags, each hand-crafted by a woman who chose to leave the nearby relight area. To date, the Loyal Workshop has trained and employed 18 women artisans who are now financially independent and work in a safe environment. Their leather is ethically produced and vegetable tanned to reveal each bag's natural beauty. 

5. Jeevika Development Society                                                                                                          

A community-based non-profit organization based in West Bengal, India, the organization is committed to working towards furthering the social and economic rights of women while challenging patriarchal norms and ensuring environmental sustainability. Their mandate is broad but impactful, empowering women in rural communities by promoting women's financial and social rights through the creation of a unique financial institute owned and operated by women living in 55 villages and through the establishment of Alor Disha, a group of community-based volunteers providing legal support to female survivors of violence. These are only two programs that represent a network of impressive interventions addressing gender inequality. 

I made my very first little film about one of the powerful community mobilizers working with Alor Disha.                                                                                 

6. Sanlaap                                                                                                                                              

Founded in 1987, this is one of the first anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata dedicated to providing holistic services, including psychosocial rehabilitation, to survivors of human trafficking and violence. Outside of the organization's shelter homes for youth, their mental health intervention program, their vocational training, their child protection program and other offerings, they have been researching and publishing reports on sexual exploitation.  

7. All Bengal Women's Union                                                                                                              

Possibly the oldest shelter and anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata, All Bengal Women's Union was founded in 1932. The organization serves female survivors of sexual exploitation through various programs including housing for older women, young adults and children. 

8. Blossomy Project

Blossomy curates unique, expressive arts workshops for survivors of trafficking, and those at risk of trafficking, in partnership with Kolkata nonprofits including Sanlaap and Kolkata Sanved, among many other organizations. Blossomy holds several annual programs including Expression through Rhythm and the If I Could Fly photography workshop as well as several vocational programs including their intensive photography training center, The Light Space, in partnership with photographer, Brooke Shaden

 

These organizations represent just a sample of the impactful work taking place in Kolkata, India. There is so much good happening in this brilliant city.  

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