Published February 29, 2024

Today the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced this year’s NEA National Heritage Fellows, recipients of our nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Sochietah Ung of Washington, D.C. was among the ten individuals from across the country named National Heritage Fellows. The award recognizes and honors his work in Cambodian costume making and dance.

Every year since 1982, the NEA has presented this lifetime honor in recognition of individuals whose dedication and artistry contribute to the preservation and growth of the diverse cultural traditions that comprise our nation. Each fellowship includes a $25,000 award and the recipients will be honored in Washington, D.C. in fall 2024.

Ung grew up in Cambodia going to classical Khmer theater shows with his grandmother, witnessing its centuries-old ornate costume tradition from the audience. He survived the Cambodian genocide (1975–79) and settled in D.C. in 1979, where he eventually began making ornate costumes and crowns for a Virginia-based dance troupe.

His exceptional creations gained recognition, including by Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, who told him: “You have fate. You were born to do this job.” In 2016, Ung received a Folklife Apprenticeship to train Matthew Regan and Lena Ouk in costume making. Jon Lohman, former Virginia state folklorist, nominated Ung.

To date, 12 individuals and performance groups from Virginia have received National Heritage Fellowships — a testament to the talent and variety of cultural traditions in the Commonwealth.

Sochietah Ung works on a traditional Cambodian costume. Pat Jarrett/VFH Staff