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‘Happy painter’ blames shop closure on copycats

Artist Stephane Delapree is best-known for his cartoonish depictions of Cambodian life
Artist Stephane Delapree is best-known for his cartoonish depictions of Cambodian life. Pha Lina

‘Happy painter’ blames shop closure on copycats

Self-dubbed “happy painter” Stephane Delapree has blamed copycat artists for his decision to close his Phnom Penh shop at the end of the year.

The French-born Canadian artist is known for his distinctive bright, cartoonish style featuring scenes of everyday life in Cambodia: whole families on motos, women in kramas at the market, columns of monks with matching umbrellas. All the characters – even the animals – have smiley faces.

The 57-year-old has exhibited in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, India, Malaysia and Singapore and has shops in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh International Airport and Sisowath Quay selling paintings and merchandise including T-shirts, coffee mugs and figurines.

But yesterday, after his new exhibition opened at the InterContinental Phnom Penh hotel on Thursday, Delapree said sales have been so slow at his galleries in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh that he has decided to shutter the shop on Sisowath Quay. He blamed pirated copies for the shortfall.

“You can find copycats of my work everywhere now for just a few dollars; in souvenir stores, in Khmer galleries and in the markets,” he said.

“I even have some in front of my gallery in Siem Reap, people who sell copies of my work.”

His latest exhibition, Flowers Power, which features a series of flower-themed still lifes, was created as an attempt to break free of the unstable Cambodian art market and reach an international audience by creating more “universal” images, he said.

“Cambodia is kind of exotic but if I only have Cambodian scenes … Perhaps I will end up going to the wall.”

Delapree has lived in Cambodia since 1994 when he found work here helping to produce pamphlets and booklets for big international NGOs such as Unicef, UNDP and the World Food Programme.

He soon began exhibiting his “happy painting” and it proved popular among international visitors. He sold out all the works at his first two exhibitions at the Cambodiana Hotel.

Things seemed to be going well until the political ructions in 1997 when military units loyal to the Cambodian People’s Party routed opposition forces and tanks rolled through the streets. The tourists stopped coming and Delapree’s paintings stopped selling. “I lost everything,” he said.

Over time the tourists returned but the cycle always remained boom and bust.

Delapree was recently commissioned to create paintings for a big new hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and a chapel in a French chateau.

He said he would continue to paint his iconic scenes of everyday Cambodian life.

“But I will also try to find opportunities outside of Cambodia,” he said.

Flowers Power is on at the InterContinental Phnom Penh’s Insider Gallery (296, Boulevard Mao Tse Toung) until November 30.

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