From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia.
Its leader, Pol Pot, envisioned a preindustrial society centered around small rural villages. He vacated the cities and forced everyone to move to the countryside where they were born. Artists, intellectuals, urbanites and anyone with even a hint of opposition were the first of the two million people out of a country with a population of eight million executed.
Many others died from starvation, disease and exhaustion from their work in labor camps formed to create a completely independent society.
The three artists featured in Topaz Arts’ exhibition “1975,” which is not officially part of the city’s Season of Cambodia festival, but runs at the same time, were young children when Pol Pot took over.
Seven years before the Khmer Rouge came into power, 2-year-old Amy Lee Sanford and her American stepmother, Barbara, fled to Boston. Her father, an art history professor who chose not to leave, did not survive the regime.
From 1968 to 1975 he wrote letters to Barbara on delicate rice paper, which Sanford scanned and reprinted — videotaping the process — for the series called “Unfolding.”
The words on the folded paper are hard to make out, though a few pop out, such as “my sweet honey” and “rockets.” The video of the scanning process echoes through the gallery space with that classic scanner sound.
“It’s very clinical in a way,” Paz Tanjuaquio, co-founder of Topaz Arts, said. “It’s like X-rays into someone’s life.”
LinDa Saphan’s parents, an engineer and a teacher, survived the genocide with their young children by disguising themselves as a fisherman and a“village idiot” and submitting to the hard labor.
In 1982 Saphan fled with her siblings and mother to Canada. Her mother continued to tell stories of her favorite places in Phnom Penh.
The artist recorded those memories with delicate yet intricate drawings of the sprawling and decaying buildings of the city — each done on rice paper and mounted on canvas.
Anida Yoeu Ali, a visual and spoken word artist who performed at the opening on April 27, lived with her family in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand.
Her artworks are screen-printed photos of her family in the camps overlaid with embroidered barbed wire. Another piece is several rectangular hanging boxes made of mosquito nets. She projects these family photos and animated barbed wire onto the hangings.
Saphan, who lives in New York City, and Ali and Sanford, who have since moved back to Cambodia, have helped rejuvenate the art scene in their birth country.
“They are really strong in the new scene, especially being women, which sets an important precedent,” Tanjuaquio said.
When: through May 26, Saturdays, 12 to 4 p.m.
Where: Topaz Arts, 55-03 39 Ave., Woodside