When Dina Chhan was growing up with her three brothers and two sisters, it was clear to her that the girls in the family worked harder than the boys. As the eldest, she was responsible for helping her mother with household tasks and looking after the younger children.
Chhan is now 29 years old and she hasn’t for one minute stopped being aware of the toil of the women who surround her. The painter’s new exhibition, The Quiet Half of the Sky, which opened at Equinox last night, portrays the hard graft and the struggle of women all over Cambodia.
“The idea is that Cambodian women work very hard – men work hard too, but not as hard as women. Most women are very strong, and they have to carry a lot of heavy things – they have a burden,” she said, adding that the title of the exhibition comes from the idea that women are holding up half of the sky.
The exhibition, which is made up of 11 paintings, features images of mothers throughout generations in one family, women working in the rice field, at the market, two beer girl sisters, and a girl who works on a farm but dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.
The painter, who also teaches art to children at an NGO and in an international school in Phnom Penh, said that she had been painting women for a long time before deciding to put them together in an exhibition.
“Every time I see something, like a woman working hard, I paint, and one day I sat down and saw the paintings, and thought, ‘Why do I paint a lot of women?’ and then I realised I wanted to explore women in Cambodia who lead busy lives and work very hard,” she said.
One of the most striking paintings in the collection is Fighting for Peace, which attempts to encompass the political turmoil – and activism – of recent times, specifically celebrating the work of land rights activists such as Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha who are known for their campaign at Boeung Kak lake. On the right side of the painting is an abstract, colourful swirl of a female form; to the left is a collage of high-profile political figures cut out from newspapers: King Father Norodom Sihanouk, CPP politicians, Boeung Kak activists.
Chhan, who is well known internationally for her ceramic sculptures depicting the effects of land mines in Cambodia, said: “The last time we had an election, you didn’t see many women getting involved in politics. This time, women are involved a lot, and with the Boeung Kak activists, women are the leaders, they go first, they know how to talk. That inspired me. For me, I’m a bit scared, but they go and try to get their land back from the government. I think that’s great – I feel like being a part of that too.”
The Quiet Half of the Sky will be exhibited at Equinox on Street 278 until April 5.