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Comic artist Chan Pisey thinks outside the box

No mere funny business, comic books are a medium for telling important stories about the struggles of ordinary people, says one young artist

HENG CHIVOAN

Comic artist Chan Pisey applies watercolours to one of her comic art panels. She is currently preparing a comic book for the Ministry of Education about childhood development.

MOST comic books sold in Cambodia today are reprints of works from the 1980s because artists fear losing copyright protection and publishers find it cheaper to reprint old comics than to buy rights to new ones.

And, although the government adopted a copyright law last year as part of its compliance with World Trade Organisation rules, comics, like CDs and DVDs, must compete with pirated copies on a largely unregulated black market.

A small group of people, however, is tirelessly working to revive interest in comic art.

Ing Phousera, also known as Sera, a Cambodian artist who has lived in France since 1975, recently instigated the publication of (Re)generations, Cambodia's first anthology of up-and-coming comic book artists based on workshops he conducted with young artists from 2005 to 2007. 

A recent exhibition of comic art at the French Cultural Centre showcased some of the anthologised work, with the art ranging from simple black-and-white line drawings to elaborate full-colour illustrations.

One of the artists, 26-year-old Chan Pisey, is an ambitious woman who likes to use her art to address pressing social issues. "I am full of stories but social issues always come to my mind when I draw. I want my work to have a message," she said.

 "Comic books are a culturally significant medium of expression, and I use comics to tell important stories of ordinary people's lives that I believe need to be told," Chan Pisey said. "While my work is an outlet for my feelings and sentiments, it also has an educational component."

She added, "People can relate to the drawings in comic books more easily than they can relate to words. The images in comics can educate both literate and illiterate people."

A mother of two, Chan Pisey is conscious of the value of education.  She says one comic she drew "is about the life of a young child who was struggling to earn money to support his family. It is about a child without education. In the comic I tried to show that the child did not go to school as others, but instead of school, he had to get up early in the morning to catch fish to sell at the market. He had to earn money to support his family.

"The young boy was a lotus seller. His mum was a corn seller. His life was difficult. Sometimes, when he earned a lot of money, it was stolen from him on his way home. I tried to depict the life of so many poor and marginalised people in Cambodia," Chan Pisey said.

COURTESY/ CHAN PISEY

A pen-and-ink panel from one of Chan Pisey’s comic books.

Ever since she was a girl, Chan Pisey has dreamt of becoming a well-known artist. "My favorite Cambodian artists are Nhoek Deom from the 1960s and Em Satya from the 1980s. I am very inspired by them. Their drawings are followed by many young artists."

But Chan Pisey wants to push herself to become the best comic book artist in the country.

"Nhek Sophaleap is the best comic book artist around right now and I find it very hard to compete with him. He is great at drawing the human anatomy and it is something that I think I need to improve," she said.

Growing up in Battambang province, Chan Pisey's life was far from easy. After studying at Ponleu Selapak Art School, she left her family home to seek work in Phnom Penh. "We had a hard life. My mum worked as a civil servant and her salary was not enough to even cover groceries," she said.

She started working in Phnom Penh in 2002, doing odd jobs for various companies and organisations, but her breakthrough came in 2003 when she won a US$1,000 contract to design a billboard advertising an educational film about HIV prevention called Punishment for Population Services International.

"I have been working freelance since 2005 and I have now worked as a graphic designer and comic book illustrator for various NGOs," says Pisey. "I am an independent artist. I do not work for others."

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