Kurdeka brings Southeast Asia to IWV

Queen of Arts

Kurdeka brings Southeast Asia to IWVBy LAURA LEIGH MONTEREY

David Kurdeka’s photography exhibit, “Faces of Southeast Asia,” now running at the Maturango Museum through Oct. 9, brings the richness of color, expression and way of life of the people of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to Ridgecrest.

The display of about 30 photographs is mounted in the breezeway between the gift shop and the gallery – an elegant location for the variety of size, color and subject matter.

Kurdeka’ storytelling talents were put to good use. With photos projected on the wall behind him, he gave us the back story on each. In Cambodia, for example, he took several shots of the people in the village on market day. “The place is full of cow dung, pigs squealing, and chickens everywhere,” he said. And water buffalo, “only these are not for sale.” One shot showed maybe a dozen or more men chatting with each other, water buffalo standing cheek by jowl (and probably doing the same thing as the men). “It kind of reminds me of a classic car show,” Kurdeka said. “Like Raymond Kelso leaning on his 1957 Chevy.” That a comment brought laughter throughout the room.

If Vietnam is the busy, hectic developing country of Southeast Asia, the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is just the opposite, Kurdeka said. Instead of PDR standing for “People’s Democratic Republic” of Laos, the joke is that it stands for “Please Don’t Rush.”

In all the countries, the modes of transport are often one’s own feet, or it may be a bicycle or small motorbike. A newly paved road in one back-country location was a big deal, but “it still took 10 hours to go 100 kilometers,” he said.

Broadly speaking, Kurdeka’s approach is portraiture, and each portrait is the end product of possibly a long, possibly a chaotic photo session. Without the back story, one cannot know the excitement, or even the fear and trepidation, felt by the subject at the time, or even how hard it was to get a satisfactory picture at all.

Here is a young girl, maybe five years old, looking directly into the lens, unsmiling, scared but not backing down.

Or here are two girls who were excited to get their pictures taken, giggling and joshing around. Kurdeka said that a proper sign of respect is to give someone a bow with hands pressed together, “and there are all kinds of ways to do it, depending on the circumstances, but it isn’t done to kids.”

However, as he was winding up and getting ready to go, he pressed his hands together and gave the two girls a bow. They stopped and paused, then the older girl, maybe nine years old, “responded with a long slow bow that went all the way down to the ground. Took about two minutes to do,” Kurdeka said. “And then she turned, and the girls walked away.”

This was not a tough crowd for Kurdeka to present to. His storytelling brought laughter many times, including during his Q&A session. “We all know you’re a Nikon guy,” said one gentleman, “but if you switched to Canon, you might get better pictures.” The air of general conviviality made me think that most of the 60-plus attendees have been friends and colleagues for many years, which even for a newcomer, only added to the enjoyment of the evening.

For Tom O’Donnell, the exhibit was a chance to revisit a land and people he came to know as he was deployed to Vietnam with the U.S. Army in the mid-1960s as a crewman on search and rescue teams. It wasn’t hard for O’Donnell to remember the horror of war, but his whole face lit up when he looked at the images of people in national dress, rice terraces on hillsides shrouded in mist, but especially the children.

“It’s just so beautiful,” he said. “And the children are the same the world over. You can go 8,000 miles away, and they’re just the same.”

Martyna Stallings, attending the exhibit with husband Clint Stallings, whose friendship with Kurdeka goes back some 40 years, was lavish in her praise and enthusiasm for Kurdeka’s photography. “You share the world with us like an ambassador,” she said. “You make us want to go there.”

Indeed he does.

Story First Published: 2019-09-13