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Altar Cloth

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In 1988, the Bronx Council on the Arts hired me as a freelancer to conduct a survey of traditional arts in the Bronx (culminating in 1990 with a four-part concert series of black musicians). As part of this project I had the great pleasure of meeting amazing local artists, but I was particularly struck by the life and work of Yow Tuan. Yow was a Cambodian refugee who had escaped the Khmer Rouge and spent time in a Thai camp before immigrating to the United States. He lived with his family in a modest apartment on University Avenue, and the living room doubled as Yow’s studio and archive. In it was a bureau filled with notebooks containing ink and magic marker drawings of religious symbols and sacred texts. In addition, there were various works in cloth, including vests that Yow informed me were protective works. He also told me that back home he had worn such cloth amulets to become impervious to soldiers’ bullets and to transform himself into a coconut so as to roll across the border undetected. Unfamiliar with Cambodian religious beliefs and art but in wonderment of Yow’s account and artistry, I searched in vain for a colleague better suited to follow up and properly record Yow’s life and art. Photographer Martha Cooper was assigned to the project, and she spent a day visually documenting Yow, his family, and his work. When my daughter Akela was born in 1990 I commissioned Yow to make this piece, a copy of one that hung in his own home. I have fruitlessly searched online for Yow Tuan, wondering how he and his family have fared.

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