Carrying the Flame:
After escape, an artist emerges
Aragna Ker, local artist and Claremont Graduate University alum, was just an infant when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, killing an estimated two million of their country’s own citizens during their four-year rule. Fear was woven into the fabric of the Cambodian lifestyle; schools and temples were converted to prisons that held offenders of the new regime, and actions deemed contrary to Khmer Rouge's communist ideals were punishable by torture and/or death. Though he escaped the country while still a child, his Cambodian roots still inspire his artwork today.
In 1979, at the age of six, the Church of the Brethren sponsored Ker and his family’s immigration to California, giving them the chance to escape the terror that pervaded their home country. Despite living through genocide, Ker has chosen to channel those experiences into something positive.
“If that didn’t happen, how would my life be?” mused Ker. “We all have our different circumstances. Unfortunately mine was really terrible, horrific, but if that didn’t happen I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be an artist.”
His recent exhibition entitled Uprising, which ran at the Sabina Lee Gallery in Los Angeles from July 7 to August 11, featured a variety of work that reflects his outlook on life and on art. For Ker, art is about self-discovery and transformation; his artist’s statement declares that he “curiously attacks simplistic materials,” such as sequins, popsicle sticks, and basic water colors.
“I try to make art from a child’s perspective,” he said. This perspective, he believes, relates back to the idea of play—a concept he finds to be vital to his work. His work, however, is far from child’s play. Rather, his distinct and unique style produces a provocative result, and he notes that CGU played an integral part in allowing him to cultivate this aesthetic. “My professors would say ‘You have your own style. Find that, figure it out, follow that.’ And I was able to do that,” he said.
Uprising combined modern-day cultural symbols with myth and history, or fused fantasy and reality to make what was a dismal scene into something much more hopeful.
One piece portrays a figure of Icarus flying over tents garishly decorated with multicolored flags with the face of Michael Jackson. Another projects a child and his father seemingly stranded in a desert; but instead of a donkey, they have a Pegasus who can ostensibly spirit them away to greener pastures. Ker relates these images and their message of transformation back to his own life:
“My own life has been changed and transformed. I’ve uprised out of my own culture and now I’m in this hybrid globalized culture.”
Despite leaving Cambodia at such a young age, Ker has not lost touch with his country of origin, personally or artistically. He’s returned twice since he left, and painted a life-sized elephant on permanent display in the Elephants of Asia Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The museum provided the elephant, and Ker was commissioned to adorn it in the way he thought best represented Cambodia.
“I had to really think about it. This was going to be on display for a long time,” he said. “I wanted to say: this is what a Cambodian elephant would be.”
Ker ultimately decided to use the symbol of Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world.
“Instead of just painting Angkor Wat, I made one side as the day time and the other side as the night time, so transition and change. To me that was very important.”
This is not the only way he has paid homage to his home country. From 2009–2012, his work was on exhibit at the United States Embassy in Cambodia. Ker’s work at the embassy centered around attaining the American dream; in one portrait he painted his family with a sparkly house. And for Ker, the American dream is more than just a thematic element in his art.
“Its so cliché to say, but what if you never had that opportunity? And I had the opportunity to go to school, to get my masters, and to be an artist,” he said. “I’ve been striving to fulfill the American dream.”
This opportunity has had a lasting impression on him. Besides consistently being featured in galleries throughout Southern California, Ker uses his skills as an artist to teach art classes to disabled adults at First Street Gallery Art Center.
“That’s how I followed my own path. Someone else was there to say I was good and should follow my own road. I want to offer that to future artists.”