Musasama makes art talk about the unspeakable

Sana Musasama, “The Wall.” Mixed media

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

“I got on the road because clay exists all over the world,” ceramic artist Sana Musasama said. “It’s made by Mother Nature, so it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you’ll find clay.”

Clay has taken Musasama to many places — from her hometown of New York City to Sierra Leone, Japan, India, France, Holland, Vietnam, Thailand, China and Cambodia. Musasama will speak tonight at 7 p.m. in the Hultquist Center about her life, travels and art.

“I pick places to travel based on how their pottery forms were, what their pottery history was,” she said. The first place she traveled was western Africa.

In the community she visited in Mendeland, Sierra Leone, something secret happened to the local girls that she knew — they went away, and when they came back, they didn’t speak to her any more. It wasn’t until 10 years later when she read about the practice of female genital mutilation in New York, that she understood what happened there.

“I was living in places where it was happening, but I was oblivious to it because it was a secret society. It was taboo for an outsider to know.”

Once she discovered the secret nobody talked about, she went back to Sierra Leone to investigate it. Sixteen years later, the effects of the trip became her “Unspeakable” series. With her art, she wanted to bring the silent issue of female genital mutilation into the light.

“Language and custom can sometimes make gates around people’s minds and hearts,” Musasama said, “but even in a village where there might not be running water, there will be one little shop — one washing machine, one fax, one computer — so now little girls are writing other little girls, and the boundaries of the world are soft. Now people know — this can’t be secret anymore.”

Women’s rights and experiences are central to Musasama’s art, as well as giving voice to those who are silenced or forgotten. Her current work, “Unknown/UnNamed,” has its roots in Cambodia, where Musasama went to visit Somaly Mam.

Mam is human rights advocate and former sex slave who started a nonprofit organization that rescues girls from the sex-trafficking trade.

At the time that she heard about Mam, Musasama was working at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services’ Alternatives to Incarceration Center in New York.

“I read this story, and it hurt me so deeply,” Musasama told her CASES students. “I think the only way I can get the hurt out is to go and find them and see their faces and tell them I’m sorry this happened to them.”

She went to Cambodia, taking dolls her CASES class had made, along with raw materials to make more. She was shocked by the horrors of the country’s civil war but inspired by the creativity of the girls in Mam’s safe houses.

Mam has safe houses throughout Cambodia where she places girls as young as 4 who she has taken out of brothels or sex slavery. She teaches them skills, gives them physical and mental therapy and sometimes provides the financial incentive to keep them out of the sex trade.

“When they’re working on the dolls, they’re actually working with themselves. It’s a way of rebuilding,” Musasama said. “One can sometimes remove something from themselves temporarily and fix it, and what was hurting can hurt less.”

Musasama was surprised to find many of the girls did not have plans for the future when they left the safe houses.

“I realized they have no imagination. That’s what the revolution drained them of, the idea to think for themselves,” she said.

Every December for the past five years, Musasama has returned to Cambodia to teach the girls at the safe houses a new craft that they can take with them when they leave. Last year, she wanted to teach them independence and imagination — she showed up with her supplies and asked the girls what they were going to create.

Musasama encourages her students to keep journals detailing their lives, especially the parts that are deeply painful.

“Not all the time are we able to get in our studios and activate, but if you keep a good journal, and you keep the core idea of what made you stop to think about it and record it, you can open that journal to that page,” she said, “and if it’s good writing, it’ll take you back to that very moment.”

For Musasama, this week’s theme is at the core of her life and art.

“I read a story about Somaly, I became inspired by her fight, I became committed to her girls, and the act is beautiful art,” she said.

Tonight, Musasama will speak about her story: her travels, what she has seen, experienced and learned and how that translates into her work.

“I really see no separation between my life, my travels, my objects, and my interaction with my community,” Musasama said. “The artwork that I make is full of cries, it’s full of tears, it’s full of stories. But when I’m making it and putting it in this object and handing it to you, you are sharing my burden when you take it away and share that story with someone else.”