Under Pol Pot’s rule during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, more than 25 percent of the southeast Asian country’s population died from starvation and executions.
Sites where people died and were buried in mass graves became known as the Killing Fields.
One of the only permanent memorials outside of Cambodia to the Killing Fields can be found in Ravenswood. It’s a vast mural along West Lawrence Avenue that’s part of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, which is tied to the Cambodian Association of Illinois.
The mural depicts a statue — surrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers — that’s a replica of one of the 216 faces at the Bayon, a Cambodian Buddhist pyramid temple that’s one of that country’s most popular tourist destinations. Built in the 12th century, the Bayon epitomizes Jayavarman VII, one of the country’s first devout Buddhist kings.
The statue, like those on the Bayon, represents Avalokitesvara, an “ascetically adept Buddhist figure that possesses great powers of insight, compassion, wisdom and patience,” says Justin McDaniel, who chairs the University of Pennsylvania’s religious studies department.
“We wanted to have this place to say to the world that we have to really look at this issue,” Paul Chhorm, the museum’s executive director, says of the genocide. “Things can’t go the way it is. Something has to change.”
The National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial, opened in 2004, is a reminder of one of the most important periods in Cambodia’s history.
The artists who created the mural say it led them to learn more about a community close to their homes that they hadn’t known about. And the mural introduces others to the community as well, which is “what we want to do,” Taylor says.
April marked the 45th year since the genocide began. The association, at 2831 W. Lawrence Ave., usually hosts a “day of remembrance” to mark that but canceled it this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chhorm, a survivor of the genocide, says of the memorial: “It’s a place to heal and reflect.”
The focal point is called the “Wall of Remembrance,” made of 250 glass panels and honoring the more than 2 million men, women and children who died in the Killing Fields.
Kaoru Watanabe, associate director of the association and museum, says it conveys a “hope for the future.”
The association, established in 1976, serves as a refuge for the estimated 3,000 Cambodians in the Chicago area, which is concentrated most heavily in Albany Park and Uptown.
“It’s really a family over there,” Taylor says.
The mural, coupled with the building’s standout facade, is almost like a greeting to the community, Watanabe says.
“Even though we have a very specific cultural identity,” Watanabe says, it’s “interesting to have that kind of impact in many different ways.”
The Ravenswood mural is one of the examples of public art dedicated to Chicago’s Asian culture.
Another mural, titled “East Meets West,” was unveiled in 2014 in Uptown’s Asia on Argyle district. It symbolizes harmony and peace in the neighborhood’s diversity.
Another is the Chinatown Centennial Mural on South Archer Avenue that commemorates Chinatown’s 100th anniversary.
To Chhorm, the Cambodian association’s mural evokes warmth and implores people to “calm down” and reflect.
“That’s the power of art,” Chhorm says. “It makes people want to investigate.”