Stories of Shadow and Light

By Erin Shannon

IMG_6247One of the unique tools of art therapy is the way it allows what is dual in nature to coexist. In the same drawing, the same painting, the same sculpture, you can create a home for opposing forces. Spending time with duality manifest can create discomfort, tension, peace, confusion, healing. Training to be an art therapist, I have learned to use this tool as a way to explore and validate the complex, conflicting and ultimately beautiful experiences of individual clients. Being human, after all, threads earth shattering beauty to heart breaking pain.

I witness this truth as I travel through Cambodia. It manifests in universal ways and in ways particular to this place. For instance, not unlike most corners of the world, there is evidence of sexual violence. I see it in the art assessments of the women and girls we worked with at Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) and I see it in their body movements. In fact a critical part of our training here is to understand how trauma manifests in the body and why art is proven to help alleviate it. (If you missed it, see Emily’s post to learn about CWCC)

This universal shadow of sexual violence will live on as long as there are those who exert power over others, as long as raping a woman can earn you status and respect, as long as there are some who will turn a blind eye.

Shadow does not, however, exist without light. I see light in the staff and clients of CWCC. They are living proof that healing takes place in community. They are resilient. There is light in the comprehensive programming of organizations working to eradicate violence by counseling survivors and perpetrators and the communities they live in. CWCC in Cambodia and The Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) in the United States are notable examples. If you know of others please add websites to the comments below.

IMG_6117I have witnessed shadow and light particular to Cambodia. I spent a few hours this morning walking around the Choeung Ek Genocidal Cetner in Phnom Penh. Over 20,000 people were murdered here. This is just one of 300 killing fields the Khmer Rouge maliciously designed to torture, murder and bury millions of innocent people. Wandering these grounds was a sobering experience. Every few months, the keepers of this place collect teeth and bones and shards of clothing that rise to the surface of the earth. Rainwater saturates the land, beckoning those who perished here to seep into the light of day. They cannot be ignored.

IMG_6225Can light be held to the shadow of historical trauma endured in this place? I cannot presume to know. What I can share are the messages of hope and calls to action shared by individuals I have met here.

Vanday drove us to the killing fields and along the way spit wisdom, openheartedly, with conviction. He implores us to speak truth. Today. If you die tomorrow, Vanday says, the truth lives beyond you; it can never die. He has written 2 books and will write his 3rd when he returns to university at the end of the year. He writes about fortifying the human resources of a country if it is to thrive. He believes strongly in the power of education.

Vanday is not the 1st person we have met to speak openly about politics in Cambodia. Danielle from our team travelled here 6 years ago and reports this is a major shift. There was, and continues to be, a great deal of fear about speaking candidly. Because the Khmer Rouge killed so many, Cambodia today is a nation of young people. Vanday predicts in another 20 years, these are the people who will come in to power. They have the potential to do so with reverence for human resources and human rights.

IMG_6200There is one more light I must speak of. We had the incredible fortune to visit Arn Chorn Pond at his home on the Mekong River. Arn’s story is incredible He was forced to become a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. The atrocities he lived through are unimaginable. Arn survived the genocide because he played the flute. He was forced to play songs of propaganda to drown out the sounds of people being murdered.

Sitting together in a thatched hut near the river, listening to him play music and speak of his work, Arn posed the question to us again and again, “why not?” Why not seek out masters of traditional Cambodian music and have them teach young people? Why not teach 1 then 30 then 120 then 100,000 street kids skills to improve their lives? Why not? Why not purchase a bus? Fill it with musicians and carpet the countryside of Cambodia with music? Why not?

Arn knows music transforms pain. He tells us artists must come together. He knows – perhaps better than most – it is possible to be engulfed by shadow, to be angry, to isolate yourself. But we must come together and Act or the lives of those lost to injustice were lost in vain.

When I feel the darkness of shadow I sometimes lose hope. I can get mired in fear and certainty my action will never be enough. The injustices are too great. Too grave. I know amazing artists, activists, mothers, teachers, lawyers, warriors, and more, who see injustice and Act. Not to do so is not an option. I admire their energy and fortitude.

The light radiating from Arn is undeniable. I am inspired to keep my eyes open to the shadow around us and keep my heart open to the blinding light. I am inspired to use the privileges afforded me to help heal and prevent suffering. I will use art. I will seek community. I will fuel resilience. I will Act.

Why not?

IMG_6180Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.

4 thoughts on “Stories of Shadow and Light

  1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for inspiring me with the depth of your contemplation, conviction and courage. There will always be moments we ask why? And may the moments we ask why not? never cease… Warmly,

  2. Beautifully put Erin. Your approaching with and open heart is quite evident. It’s incredibly inspiring to hear of your facilitation in the dialog of healing via rebuilding the beauty and expression of the past. All my love -Nick

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  4. Pingback: Light and dark: heights and the depths of human capabilities by Emily Wilson | Naropa Community Art Studio-International

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