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“When we die we go back to nature”: Nou Sary’s exhibition focuses on the cyclical nature of our environment.
“When we die we go back to nature”: Nou Sary’s exhibition focuses on the cyclical nature of our environment. Supplied

An artist on painting with the forest

Cambodian artist Nou Sary is a man of many talents, but he is the first to admit that his English skills are a bit rusty. “About 12 years ago I learned to speak English, so it’s very difficult for me to return to speaking it,” he says apologetically. Sary, who now lives in France, quietly mentions that he sometimes gets confused between the four other languages he speaks fluently.

Cambodia inspired Sary’s paintings, he says, even though they were created while he was living in France.
Cambodia inspired Sary’s paintings, he says, even though they were created while he was living in France. Pha Lina

The Khmer Rouge regime left Sary without any family, and as a result he spent his childhood in an orphanage. His international success on the arts stage is a symbol of his resilience.

While Sary sometimes creates engravings and drawings, his latest exhibition, Homme et Nature (Man and Nature), showcases his mastery of painting and photography as well as art installations.

Is there one artistic pursuit that he naturally gravitates towards? “I’m always painting. In the last five years I’ve become busy [with lots of projects] but I always think about my painting.”

While studying for his artistic diploma in France Sary took to black and white photography, as the materials he needed for painting were too expensive there. Ironically, it is his photography that earned him a bronze medal from the Association of French Artists.

A monk’s umbrella can be seen among the paint. Sary believes that man survives thanks to nature’s bounty.
A monk’s umbrella can be seen among the paint. Sary believes that man survives thanks to nature’s bounty. Pha Lina

The exhibition explores the relationship between man and his earthly environment and Sary takes a holistic approach to the subject, working with nature to create his art. “My paintings are made from the colours that you see in the forest: coffee beans, ochre, the spices found in curry.” Sary tries to use colours from the natural world wherever possible and seven of the paintings at the exhibition use pigment from (Cambodian) coffee beans.

Environmental awareness is one of the central themes of Homme et Nature, but sustenance is also a recurring focus. “The body has energy for working because we eat fruit and vegetables provided by nature,” he says. Sary has first-hand experience of how food can give life but also take it away, having lost his father to famine under the Khmer Rouge.

Sary’s stay in the Cambodian capital will be short-lived, but just like his passion for painting, coming back to his birthplace is something that’s always on his mind. “In August I will go back to France, but I want to return to live in Cambodia, to teach children how to study art.” The exhibition takes place between June 27 – August 31 at the gallery of the Institut français du Cambodge, #218 street 184.

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