If a child asks to study painting in Cambodia, the usual reproach from their parents is lack of employment. “The only job you’ll get is painting the Buddha’s story on temple walls and with a finite number of temples your career and income will be very limited,” they say.
Despite this conventional logic, some youths from poor backgrounds in Battambang province found the courage to insist on learning visual arts when they were young, and many have since found painting to be the stepping stone to a glorious career.
Climbing over walls
About 10 minutes drive along the National Road 5 from Battambang town to the country’s west, 24-year-old Sou Sophy fought against a prevailing view that women lacked the skills required to be painters. She brushed aside this criticism and began attending art classes at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang eight years ago.
“When I was starting my studies, many men criticised me for choosing the wrong skill. Painting was a man’s task, not a woman’s task. They told me that I should study tailoring or hair dressing,” Sou Sophy said.
“Their idea of painting is decorating the ceilings and walls at temples, and they would say that women can’t climb up the walls to paint.”
Many people in her community had negative views about women who studied painting, but Sou Pophy’s mother supported her through to her graduation in 2009. She learned more than how to paint realistic portraits; she also learned the abstract styles for which Battambang has since become renowned.
Her art was shown at numerous exhibits in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Thailand while she was still studying. A year before she graduated, she was recruited as a painting teacher at PPS, and last year she was sent by the school for graduate studies in France, returning to take a teaching role at Battambang University. She’s unsure whether most people in her community still believe that women are not suited to painting, but knows that some have at least changed their minds.
Through her painting class, she has seen that some children want to learn how to paint, but their parents prevent them. At the beginning of her course, her school enrolled 100 children, but only 10 completed: the rest dropping out due to parental pressure.
Going it alone
Twenty-two-year old Pen Robit returned his wooden housein Otakam Pi village after attending painting classes at PPS in 2005. He preferred to go it alone and invent his own technique and style, rather than learn from others. His style took the art market by storm in Phnom Penh and many of his works were sold to foreign buyers.
“I do not use a brush to paint the lines. I use plastic bags to put the paint inside and make a tiny hole that paint can drop from. Then I squeeze the plastic bag to drop the paint on the canvas to make various images,” Pen Robit said.
It’s a time-consuming process. Pen Robit has to wait until one colour dries before he continues with another. Sometimes he has to contend with the chemical smells from the paints, which occasionally affect his health.
“I still use the kind paint that’s usually used in the painting of iron on my canvases. This painting smells unhealthy, but the quality is good. For one picture, I have to paint up to six days, so I have to deal with the smell. But at the moment, I’m also doing research how to paint with acrylics,” Pen Robit said.
Despite his success, Pen Robit doesn’t want to duplicate his work or keep painting the same line styles because he feels that art suffers from being beholden to market pressures. Artists should be independent, even from the financial side of art, he says.
“When I want to paint, I paint. When I don’t want to, I stay away from my painting stuff. I am an independent artist, so I want to be full of freedom.”
Finding the answer
In Kampong Seima village, about 50 minutes from Battambang town, there is a small hut that 24-year-old artist Nov Cheanick uses as his studio. He paints pictures on his wall, makes works for display at galleries, and uses his home as a centre for the local art community.
Nov Cheanick studied art at PPS in 2003 and he was the first painter at the school who was sent for further studies in France, two years ago. He notices many people do not analyse artworks too deeply, so he chooses to an abstract style to make viewers look more closely and think more deeply.
“In our society, people look at things without any consideration. They just see it, but they don’t really think about it. We do these contemporary paintings by adding more stuff or play around with a lot of different ideas because such paintings always make people wonder. When they wonder, then they will try to find an answer,” he explains.
In his studio, which is near the path primary students take to school, Nov Cheanick painted a picture of his girlfriend with dark green skin and the face of an old woman. When students visit, they ask questions about this piece and the questions please him.
“They have questions for me, but I never answer them. I just tell them to find the answers on their own and tell me later what they think about my paintings,” he says.