If I Can Help Somebody

Sana Musasama's Art of Healing

Cliff Hocker

September 12, 2016 

Sana Musasama (right) with Somaly Mam (center) and Sylor Lin, the formerly enslaved co-founder of the shelter Ever since 2006, artist Sana Musasama has traveled to Cambodia for six weeks.  She does this during the December-January semester break from teaching ceramics and sculpture at Hunter College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.  Arriving in Southeast Asia, she uses art to help rehabilitate women and girls rescued from the sex trade.

Ren, a survivor, program graduate and Musasama’s translator. She is wearing an apron she made.“Each year I introduce them to an employable skill based on sustainability,” says Musasama. “The materials usually come from their own environment. They will then transform these substances into an object that we hope to sell. The process of turning a piece of grass into a pair of slippers or into a wind chime is so transformative and healing that the girls are indirectly healing themselves. They are taking themselves from being sex slaves who have been brutally victimized and having had every human right violated to once again be laughing, dancing, making art, loving one another, loving their parents, loving the person who sold them into bondage. They are being transformed.  That’s what art does. These are the projects that I do with them every single year.”

Oppressed, Rituals In The Lives Of Women, (UnSpeakable series), 2014, ceramic mixed media, 5 x 2.5 x 3 in This artist has been traveling to far corners of the Earth for decades.  And she has not been a tourist: she has befriended, lived with, and been inspired by people in West Africa, South America, Japan, India, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Israel and several European countries.  Her extensive travels have made her more compassionate, Musasama says. “I began to travel because I wanted to test the world I grew up in against other worlds and expand as an artist.  As an artist, we have to see.  And if we want to see, we have to go beyond what’s comfortable. We have to push out to something uncertain.”

This Season

A wide range of her work is being exhibited in four shows opening this month.  They’re free-form ceramic sculptural mixed-media pieces from as small as hand-size to as large as 16 feet.  All are social or political by nature.

Girl Soldier, 2016, mixed media, 12i x 9i x 5 in (more on Art Prize site)From September 21 to October 9, 2016, Musasama’s "Girl Soldiers" series is in an ArtPrize 8 group show at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sculptures inspired by her late 1970s stay among the Mende in Sierra Leone are on display. 

“The Mende people embraced me as if I were their child. The girls were responsible for educating me on village life and how to be safe. They taught me how to cook on hot stones, wash my clothing in the river on river stones. They taught me their songs and showed me how to dance like a woman. They loved me as I loved them.  One day, the elders simply told me, ‘Sister Sana  you must return to your country, we will not be able to protect you.’ I did not understand at the time, but I can still see the seriousness and fear in their eyes. Soon after I left Mende Land, a civil war ravaged the land and killed most of the people I loved.  I have often wondered what happened. I use to get letters and would read of horror after horror. One day the letters stopped,” wrote Musasama in a crowdfunding campaign to pay for shipping expenses for the heavy art objects. She succeeded in reaching a $1000 goal, and CrowdRise matched these funds.  At ArtPrize in 2015, Musasama won its American Civil Liberties Union Award for her "Unspeakable" series installation about female genital mutilation, work also based on her travels in Africa.

Hand Bark (Maple Tree series) 1996, ceramic mixed media, 5 ft x 28 circumferenceHer other season-openers are group shows in New York.  The "Unspeakable" series now appears at Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill.  Musasama’s cup forms pottery is at Clay Art Center in Port Chester.  Her 1990s tree sculptures are are at Rockland Community College  in Suffern.

The materials Musasama has combined in her ceramic mixed-media creations include ceramic, fiber, gold leaf, paper, bark, metal and cloth. Now she is also employing glass and integrating video to see if she can bring time-based ideas into her work.

Artists’ Antennae

Musasama’s life and art are guided by social consciousness, humanitarian activism, and meaningful interaction with people of many cultures.  She’s an artist determined to do her part in “changing the world.”

Barrier (02), Rituals In The Lives Of Women, part of the UnSpeakable Series 2015, 4 x 3 x 3.5Musasama believes artists have something special, a heightened sensitivity. She likens it to antennae on insects or whiskers on a cat. They enable a cat to navigate through areas and be alert to danger. “I think artists sometimes come with these extra, extra antennae that are sensitive. That sometimes we see something the other person may not take in,” she says. “I come with a particular tenderness as an artist, such that I see a blind person when I’m walking down the street, that I see a crippled person or I see someone who looks like they are disoriented. I think I come with an antenna within my soul that makes me stop and say can I help you, or are you distressed, or can I call your mother for you? I just see them.”

Several other like-minded artists have served as affirmative examples for Musasama’s art of activism and healing. “From the Civil Rights era, there were so many artists whose work I look to,” says Musasama. “Elizabeth Catlett, for one, is an artist whose shoulders I stand on."  About 20 years ago she became aware of Valerie Maynard's work on her brother’s life sentence in prison.  She's also aware of numerous other activist artists and specifically cites Sonya Clark , Joyce ScottHowardena Pindell and Tyrone Mitchell.

Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Why is it so many black artists are always dealing with the same content, even though we do it differently.’  And I guess it is because we are all suffering a little bit from the same issue in some kind of way.”

Her Mother’s Blindness

Cut, ceramic mixed mediaMusasama attributes her commitment to healing to the disabling experience suffered by her mother, who went blind when Musasama was a youngster. Her insistence on living at home while not being really able to function created a big mess -- household chaos and a series of burn accidents. “When my friends came over,  they no longer saw the order they had seen previously. They deemed my mother crazy and would laugh at her.  I wouldn’t dare let anybody laugh at the most important person in my life, so I stopped having guests. She never left the house any more.  She became depressed and unhappy,” remembers Musasama.  

Locked, Rituals In The Lives Of Women (UnSpeakable series), 2015, ceramic mixed media, 4.5 x 2.5 x 3 in “I think my mother’s blindness made me incredibly tender to handicaps in the world. I think watching her suffer made me look at other sufferings and try to change it.  I couldn’t change my mother, because I was too young,” reflects Musasama. “I couldn’t change the world then, but I can now.  I can change the world of a girl who is a child soldier or a sex slave.  I can pick up a piece of fabric and a stick and a rock and show them how to make something beautiful. I can show them how we can go to the market, sell it, and their body has nothing to do with the transaction. I can liberate them from a burden they have been carrying.”

Back to Cambodia

In a few months, Musasama returns to Cambodia for the ninth time. A chance reading of a magazine article while riding New York’s E Train originally put Musasama on the path of helping women and girls liberated from Camdodia’s sex trade.

Glamour magazine had named Somaly Mam “Woman of the Year” in 2006. “I read about five women who are changing the world in five incredible ways.  Her particular story about growing up as a sex slave really entered into my subconsciousness and made me feel like I wanted to be a part of the healing process that she’s involved in,” Musasama recalls. She wrote the Asian activist, asking how she as an artist could be a part of that humanitarian work. Mam emailed her back, inviting her to Cambodia.

Barrier (03), Rituals In The Lives Of Women (UnSpeakable series), 2015, ceramic mixed media, 4 x 3 x 3.5 inTraveling there after saving up money, Musasama was introduced to 80 girls rescued from various brothels in Phnom Penh. The process involved taking victims to a hospital for medical treatment and then to a rehabilitation center which provided them five years of intensive healing therapy. Movement, dance, cooking, sisterhood, language and computer skills were taught.  Musasama came up with the idea of bringing creativity into the program, so art could heal.

The artist already had plenty of experience helping young women get out of “the life.” And she was equipped with an art therapy toolkit. Since the late 1990s, Musasama had been working with alternatives to incarcerating young women in the New York judicial system. Musasama told the mostly black U.S. teenagers she instructed about the plight of the girls in Cambodia being sold into brothels. The Americans suggested she take to Cambodia what had been employed with them as a way of transitioning from one life to another -- a doll-making project. The Americans said to Musasama, “It helped us heal.  It’s going to certainly help them heal.”

Musasama in Cambodia in 2015 with two survivors who now attend universitiesMusasama took 16 dolls that the New York girls had made for the Cambodian girls and 30 blank dolls.  “This was for them to go through that same process of looking at one side of the doll from whence they have come and the other side, which is where they are now,” explains Musasama, “healing, learning how to cook, learning their language, learning to fight back, learning what they should have learned when they were sitting in the brothels instead of sitting in the classroom.”

The apron project, where Musasama hires 20  Cambodian girls who have been reintegrated into a cooperative, has been their most successful. The rescue and rehabilitation efforts continue, despite reorganization and loss of some funding.

Percolating Now

Rituals In The Lives Of Women (Female Excision series) 1991- present, installation view, ceramic mixed mediaMusasama is currently focused on three bodies of work.  An ongoing topic is "Rituals in the Lives of Women," about female circumcision. She started this series over 12 years ago, spending three years on it intensely.  Another subject is the "Unknown/Unnamed" series about mass burials around the world, about the indignity of humans not being decently laid to rest.  Since she began traveling to Cambodia, Musasama has been very involved with accompanying survivors trying to find the remains of their loved ones in the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge regime killed and buried over one million people during the 1970s.  The misfortune of losing four of her students in the September 11 terrorist attacks on America is the basis of a third project.

If I Can Help Somebody 

Sugar vs Maple Syrup (Maple Tree Series) 1995, 5.5 ft x 31 circumferenceSana Musasama says artists are not the only ones who may hear the call to put the art of healing to work. “I think it is the responsibility of every human being to make it a little bit better for the next generation of people that come along. I don’t think all of us can grab hold to it, but maybe we can help somebody else who’ll do something we can’t do,” she says. 

“I have many friends who will never come to Cambodia or a dirty poor country where there are the deceased people on the ground, dogs that look terrible, people walking around with missing body parts. They can’t do that, they can’t look at that, but they can support me, who can look at it.  So I think every human being should help somebody else.”

Cliff Hocker is an independent writer who lives in Richmond VA.