The Lexicon of Freedom

Sopheak Sam

M.F.A. '25, Cornell AAP

Sopheak Sam is a visual artist born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts – ancestral homeland of the Pawtucket and Wamesit communities. Sam’s practice traces affect, desires, and intimacies across historical movements within the Cambodian-U.S. diaspora to articulate figurations of post-war subjectivity, transience and impermanence in sites of encampment, and queer ‘Buddhist melancholia’ (a term attributed to scholar Arnika Fuhrmann). Sam was a 2022-23 Fulbright Student Researcher living and working in Thailand and explored Northern Khmer musical arts. They’re currently completing their M.F.A. in the Department of Art at Cornell University. 

The Lexicon of Freedom re-stages a 1986 forgotten Disney film (“The Girl Who Spelled Freedom”) to complicate the nationalizing practice of American spelling bees as a cultural project shaping identity and language—explored through the lens of Cambodian diasporic subjectivity. The film is a dramatization of the true life of Linn Yann, a young Cambodian refugee girl, who, along with her family, receives sponsored immigration to the United States, and goes on to become a spelling bee champion shortly after.

This multimedia installation comprises a one-channel video with sound, artist books, and painterly interventions on English language learning guides and workbooks that unfurl onto a recreation of a spelling bee stage. A meditative response that seeks to unsettle childhood nostalgia, reflect on early cinematic representation of Asian migration in the aftermath of the Cold War, and question notions of freedom, power, citizenship, and exceptionalism. 

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