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Exhibit tackles the Mekong River's environmental woes

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Seous Nara's painting shows how the Mekong connects six different countries (l). He hopes his sculpture will raise awareness about pollution (r). Photograph: Roth Meas/Phnom Penh Post

Seous Nara's painting shows how the Mekong connects six different countries (l). He hopes his sculpture will raise awareness about pollution (r). Photograph: Roth Meas/Phnom Penh Post

The Mekong River, which winds from China through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, is not just a beautiful natural setting but also a main water source and lifeline for the region’s wildlife and river-dependent communities.

After plans for a hydroelectric dam on the Laos portion of the river were announced last year, concerns about the environmental integrity of the river were raised by activists and the governments of potentially affected countries.

Now, the concern over environmental issues affecting the river has found artistic expression in a group exhibit titled Mekong Impact, opening this evening at Romeet Gallery in Phnom Penh.

Seventeen fourth-year students of Battambang’s renowned art school, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), have created over 30 works of art about the threats to the Mekong – from possible dams to pollution to over fishing – as part of an environmental awareness campaign co-sponsored by the US Embassy in Cambodia.

Seous Nara, 21, has contributed one painting and one sculpture to the exhibit, with both pieces highlighting the interdependence of the communities and wildlife that call the Mekong home.

His painting depicts six national flags – each belonging to one of the countries that the Mekong crosses – floating in a river. By drawing the flags as if they were ships, the young artist says he wants people to think about how the river offers transportation to those who live along its path.

Meanwhile, his sculpture depicts interlocking fish moving away from what looks like black, polluted water to a bright blue space, an image meant to call attention to the hazards of pollution and dumping waste into the water.

“If oil spills into the river, the biodiversity of fish, turtles or snails will flee, like my fish statues squeezing together to move away from dirty to clean water,” Seous Nara said.

Tor Vutha, a visual arts teacher at PPS and the co-ordinator for the Mekong Impact project, hopes the artworks’ educational messages will inspire people to take action towards environmental protection.

“We had a tour along the Mekong River before, and we studied the current issues affecting it. It’s our concern too,” Tor Vutha said. “We artists should help to raise awareness on environmental protection.”

Heak Pheary, 22, agrees, and it is through her installation of a bamboo fish trap that she wants to convey the importance of sustainability in fishing communities.

Papers folded into the shape of fish are scattered inside and outside the trap, showing that fishermen can catch some fish while releasing others and allowing them to survive.

“If we trap fish in the traditional way, some fish can be caught and some fish can escape, so they can continue reproducing,” Heak Pheary said. “If fishermen use electric shock or grenade explosion methods, we can catch a lot of fish, but the fish that we don’t want also die.”

Another of her pieces is an installation consisting of fish sculptures painted gold and silver – colours generally viewed as precious by people.

Heak Pheary wants people to consider that fish has as high a value as gold or silver, so they should not think only about their short-term business, or they won’t have anything left for their children.

After its Romeet run, the exhibit will be toured in Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces, regions which are heavily reliant on the Mekong as a source of livelihood.

“We already know that the worst pollution is from factories or some industrial companies,” said Thor Vutha. “But we should not forget the grassroots people. If all the families throw waste into the river every day, they can pollute the river. We have to change this behaviour together.”

Mekong Impact will be displayed at Romeet Gallery, #34E St 178, Phnom Penh, from June 12 until June 22. The grand opening will take place this evening at 6:30pm.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at roth.meas@phnompenhpost.com

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