Long Beach Focus

Sayon Syprasoeuth

Photo by Bennet Perez

Compound: In Cambodian culture, is there a version of cosmic cosmology? If yes, does it play into your work?

Sayon Syprasoeuth: Very much so! In my culture, it is the belief in destiny and manifestation of one’s reality, and especially how one currently lives one’s life, that will impact one’s future or bring bad omen to one’s family. However, much of what we have learned in western culture has gradually erased our elders’ teachings from our Cambodian homeland. Even though people in America have their own belief systems, much of my work is based on my readings of souls, past lives, and learning about what the meaning of god is.

For example, I based my 2007 hanging sculpture, Catching Fireflies, on stories my mother told me as a small child about being just and the idea that when I die and leave this physical world my soul could be banished to the realms of suffrage. I created that piece with hair, glue, and glitter to be able to catch a soul that had fallen into that realm, based on some kind of reckoning the person has done to counteract a committed wrong in the hope that his or her soul could be caught by this net before descending into darkness. This method was inspired by the kinds of folk customs and rites my family and ancestors practiced back in the old country.

C: How would you describe your practice? What inspires you?

SS: Many things inspire me. Ancient Greek philosophy, interviews and writings by authors like Pierre Grimes, Dolores Cannon, and Carlos Castaneda, and the Toltec wisdom tradition all have informed and guided my work. I investigate and reflect on the concepts of tragedy, death, and sadness. From there, I begin the process of creating my work from intuition and guidance within my greater self to manifest something into this physical world. Ultimately, however, all my pieces in one way or another investigate Perennial Philosophy and Platonic virtues—love, beauty, justice, truth, etc.—and the question many of us have regarding reality and our place in our it.

Photo by Bennet Perez.

C: What’s your connection to Long Beach?

SS: I was about ten years old when my family of nine first came to this country from Cambodia as refugees. We landed in Iowa in 1980, but we had no other Asian family to connect with, except my cousin who lived 45 minutes away. When we found out that my uncle lived in Torrance, California, we moved to be closer to him and his family. We discovered there were lots of other Asians—Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, etc.—in nearby Long Beach, so we moved here shortly thereafter. It was an amazing time to grow up in Long Beach: the city was still new and the immigrant community was growing. Along with many other people, I wasn’t able to break away from it yet because as a youth I got too comfortable. Later though, I got educated and found opportunities my village had never mentioned. I had to find these things for myself by expanding my world and venturing out beyond my own community.

I didn’t have much guidance or mentorship from my immediate family around jobs and education since they were farmers and did not encourage education. But I wanted to move up, and was able to work hard and pay my own way through college and graduate school. I got some help from the government, but it was not enough. I am still paying student loans in my late 40s, but I am so glad I forced myself to get educated. This was one of the most satisfying goals I accomplished.

C: During this time of enforced stillness and the movement for Black Lives Matter, has your creativity evolved, been challenged? How are you processing?

SS: There have been many stories, both tragic and inspirational that have come out of the killing of George Floyd by the white policemen. I want to be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t want to detract in any way from the movement. On the contrary, I want to help and provide support through educating my community on the importance of black lives and to bring understanding of why and how the systematic persecution of black people has gone on for all these years in America and throughout the world. It is far too easy to say that it is a black person’s (or anyone else’s) problem and to walk away and carry on with your life, ignoring reality. The moment to do something to bring justice for black people is right now, through systematic changes, policy, and studying and remembering history. How about jobs for all, as FDR and Henry Wallace implemented? How about Medicare for all, education for all, and controls on real estate speculation (which kills economies)? We all suffer until these measures are in place—especially black and other minority communities.

Until justice is universal, we all pay for inequality in some way. As an old man walking to a convenience store here in Long Beach, my father was robbed for only $20 on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Anaheim Ave. As part of this robbery, he was struck in the back of his head by a 2×4 piece of wood, and his skull was cracked. He was already a senior citizen! Why was it necessary to strike him? As a result of this, he lost his left-side hearing, and he was never mentally quite the same.

So, we pay for it one way or another. Was I angry? You bet I was. But it is important not to characterize an entire community by one act. And we can also reflect on how many people would be dealing (or doing) drugs, or desperate enough to hit an old man, if they had, from the beginning, a job to support themselves and their family, and equal access to healthcare and education, all the free of charge, as in much of Europe.

Yes. My creativity has been challenged, because I have to deal with what’s going on in the world, first with Covid-19, and now with injustice, racial instability, and the destruction of property and people’s lives. I have to deal with anxiety and hearing gunshots, sirens, and blasting sounds, all of which remind me of my scary childhood in Cambodia. For me, creating new work while processing all the chaos and destruction in our city has been challenging, but to focus on art and creating is also a great way to block off all of the chaos going on around me. It reminds me that beauty is ever-present. In fact, that’s what I did as a child while living in a refugee camp. For me to make art and to isolate myself from the dysfunctional world around me is a great escape. As an artist, I feel the need to be productive and reflect by staying focused on my work. Yet, this same work does not have to be disconnected from the world around me. It can be relevant to what is going on. Indeed, it usually is. It is an outlet for me to process these issues.

C: What are you currently working on?

SS: My work is currently being featured in two shows. One is digital and online through my friend, artist Seann Brackin, under the theme of art made during quarantine. quarantine.brackinworld.com

The other one was supposed to be in-person but is now online as the result of Covid-19. Thank You, No Thank You is by artists impacted and reflecting on the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War curated by Catzie Vilayphonh. asianartsinitiative.org

As for making art right now, I’ve been doing some light relaxing work such as painting images of family members I can’t visit. But more seriously, I am also assembling a body of work about the Nepal Royal Massacre, a tragedy which will have its 20th anniversary in June 2021. Right now, there is lots of time to spend alone and reflect on one’s life, as well as consider all the death, destruction, and injustices going on all over the world. I am hoping to show this new body of work in 2021.

But we should also keep our eyes on the many stories of courage and change, such as some police officers taking a knee for peaceful protestors in solidarity with them; protestors protecting storefronts from looters; the mayor of Washington, DC, painting the street with “Black Lives Matter.” And even just the simple but often overlooked fact that people are going out in the streets by the tens of thousands and risking their lives (from Covid-19) to march for justice for themselves and others (many of the protesters being non-Black). Their courage to stand up for justice on a mass scale is very inspiring.

SAYON SYPRASOEUTH

Sayon Syprasoeuth is an interdisciplinary artist who focuses on his personal story as a refugee from Cambodia. He grew up in Thai refugee camps and emigrated to the United States at the age of ten. He has a B.A. from Long Beach State and an M.F.A from Claremont Graduate University. His work addresses past and present issues, triggered by memories of war and trauma, identity, beliefs, spiritual dimensions, and contemporary life in the United States.  He is the Program Manager of Youth Enrichment and runs an arts initiative, Living Arts Long Beach.