In a powerful painting from Phnom Penh-based artist Sokuntevy Oeur’s recent Singapore exhibition, Feeding Cambodia, an old and weathered woman sits washing dishes behind a restaurant’s peeling, wooden walls.
The ashen grey, naked figure, laden with grotesque folds of loose skin, is hunched over a wooden plank.
The work could be defined as Cambodian folk art but a surrealist influence is apparent – the woman’s face is exaggerated, contorted into Dali-esque curves. The background is heavy with symbols and metaphors, according to Sokuntevy, who prefers to be known as Tevy.
Dishwasher Dreaming is a bold and brave analysis of the ever-widening gap between the rich and elite and the impoverished in Cambodia.
The artist, schooled at the well-established Phare Ponleu Selpak art school in Battambang, has demonstrated an insight into the social mechanisms and nuances at play in her home country.
In her imagery – from female buddhas, wiry prostitutes to symbols of western excess – Tevy is unafraid to court controversy.
“This old woman isn’t someone specific, she’s someone we see here all the time,” said Tevy in an interview yesterday. A dishwasher can be seen inside the woman’s head.
“She works so hard, she’s dirt poor. She’s thinking about what the wealthy people have. It’s sad. She sees that contrast between her and them, barang or Khmer. Everyone sees this, the divide between the rich, the super rich and the poor. She’s stuck.”
Four of the 12 vibrant, acrylic paintings sold in less than a week since the exhibition’s opening at Utterly Art gallery on June 13. There are plans to exhibit the collection at other international galleries.
The work, she said, was a result of relentless practice with colour and movement.
“I just mix and play around with colour and shading, perspective and light and movement and texture – really I played around with this for six months. When I was at Phare [Ponleu Selpak] it was all so realist and figurative . . . I tried hard at this but found it boring and limiting.”
Born in a countryside village on the rural fringes of Battambang, the 29-year-old said she didn’t approach painting with a theme or idea in mind. Rather, her work evolved naturally, also commenting on gender inequality and religion.
“I think I have a distinct style and there’s a bit of a narrative, but I think the process is more intuitive.” She hasn’t shied away from controversy, and statements that risk offending either locals or foreigners.
In another macabre work, The Sixth Sense, a faceless woman grasps the leash of a dog and skeletons and ghouls float about the figures. Tevy was inspired by the Cambodian spiritual belief that animals can see ghosts.
“A lot of locals are shocked by my work, they say they are terrified but this encourages me.”
Also tied into supernatural relief is The Enlightened One, a painting in which an old woman has taken off her head, which is connected to a bucket of limbs and a vessel of lotus flowers. It has been replaced with that of a glowing, kaleidoscopic Buddha – a female one – “they say Buddha’s a man but why can’t she be a woman? There are great sides to this culture and religion – respecting and the deep connection to family, which can be lost in the West, I think. And yet there are great problems with our society.
“The treatment of women. Don’t wear a short skirt. Don’t put your feet up on the chair, don’t laugh too loud. These things get to me. This is Cambodia now and I want those things to change.”
In other works Tevy references the encroachment of western culture – huge, dripping burgers and skimpy clothing.
While her harshest critics have said her work to be derivative of Dali, or Van Gogh, she said that influence informed all artists.
“Isn’t it good that my work is influenced by great art rather than s*** art? Every artist, writer, musician is influenced by something.”
“Every artist is individual and tells their own story, what is happening in their minds. That is most important, the technique you can find [later].”