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Rey: Imagining Cambodia and more … all in DeKalb

An international Cambodia Studies conference was held at Northern Illinois University this past week. I was drawn into the public events offered throughout the weekend, beginning with an exhibit of Burmese music and photography from Cambodia and Burma at the NIU Art Museum in the Altgeld Hall gallery.

Visiting the opening of the art exhibit Thursday, I learned of events being held Friday and Saturday evenings – a film viewing and concert. NIU has the strongest Cambodia Studies program in the U.S., according to Center for Southeast Asian Studies director Judy Ledgerwood.

NIU has five faculty members who work on Cambodia with specialties in anthropology, foreign languages, history and political science. Through the center, NIU has regular field schools that take students to Cambodia, and agreements with universities there that help bring students from Cambodia to study at NIU.

The conference was designed to inspire new ways of imagining Cambodia, including the explosion of creativity in the visual and performing arts. There were opportunities for discussions of change in a post-conflict society.

The work of contemporary Cambodian photographers Khvay Samnang and Lim Sokchanlina are featured in an exhibit at the NIU Art Museum (west end on first floor of Altgeld Hall). The opening reception included a musical performance by musicians from Chicago playing traditional Cambodian instruments.

There also is an exhibit of Music for the Divine, which explores Burmese traditional music ranging from religious to the mundane. Royal palace rituals, expressions of minority identity and cultural confidence are represented in several colorful displays. Music Towards Nirvana, Music from the Court, Music and the Spirits, Music and Ethnicity all portray aspects of Burma, an epicenter of landward and seaward trade routes.

Friday evening was the screening of the groundbreaking Cambodian film, “Lost Loves.” The film is being submitted this year to the Academy Awards in the best foreign film category. It is the first feature film released in more than two decades about the Khmer Rogue era.

Directed by Chhay Bora, the film captures the story written by Khauv Sotheary of his mother’s experience during the brutal Khmer Rogue era from 1975 to 79. The film was made to engage the younger Cambodian audience, which is now at least a generation removed from the Khmer Rogue period.

“Children need to see history with their eyes to understand what they read,” Bora has written. “A film like this helps them understand their textbooks better.”

Another highlight of the conference was a concert Saturday, which NIU associate music professor and percussionist Gregory Beyer organized. It honored the Cambodian-American composer, Chinary Ung. Ung’s compositions were performed by soloists and small chamber groups, including a number of NIU School of Music musicians, including Beyer.

The composer taught at NIU early in his career. Ung is now an internationally known composer whose work will be performed at The Julliard School of Music in New York next week.

My experiences in the DeKalb community this weekend reminded me of how fortunate we are to have such varied resources on our doorstep. In Van Buer Plaza downtown, we had the ninth annual Mexican Fiesta, hosted by Conexcion Comunidad. Eduardo’s Mexican Restaurant hosted a Block Party on Second Street with a soundstage Saturday evening.

The Egyptian Theatre was host to Switchback, an Irish and American music performing group, as a fundraiser for the local chapter of Illinois League of Women Voters.

NIU will be host for the 10th International Burma Studies Conference from Oct. 5 to 7. The Burma Studies Group, formed in 1986 at NIU, will host a number of cultural events in conjunction with the Conference.

We can be very pleased with the local opportunities we have to enjoy diverse entertainment in our community. These give us pleasure to broaden our experiences and education.

• John Rey lives in DeKalb and is retired from DeKalb Ag/Monsanto. He also has been employed with AXA Financial and Family Service Agency. He continues as an active community volunteer in several organizations. You may contact him at

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