An exhibition by artists Bo Hak and Mil Chankrim will run until March 3. From left, Hak’s Excellency (top) and Help! by Chankrim. Photograph supplied
Young artist Mil Chankrim runs a hand through his fringe and gestures towards a portrait of an other-worldly woman, her forlorn eyes cast down on a wilted tree.
“Of all of [his collection] I guess this one means the most... it represents my disappointment, loneliness, exile and anger... but most of all the sadness,” the 22-year-old says.
The abstract painting, Unfortunate, depicts Chankrim’s mother during his childhood in Banteay Meanchey. After her husband (and Chankrim’s father) abandoned his young family, she tumbled into a web of depression and, later, mental illness.
Chankrim was not even 10 when his mother died, and a year later he boarded a bus for the Thai border, where he worked in a factory to support his siblings.
The woman’s features are illuminated by a halo of warm, yellow light, while the drooping tree, detached from its roots, is symbolic of the severed relationship between mother and son.
“I want lightness and brightness for her – to protect her. I wish I could have been able to protect her,” he said.
Chankrim’s work is part of a collaborative exhibition with fellow Battambang-based artist – the pair share a studio – and Phare Ponleu Selpak graduate Bo Hak. Knitting and Weaving features vivid depictions of the abuse, often violent, they both faced as children.
Another oil painting, Help!, is eerie and grotesque, perhaps more sinister than other paintings in the collection. It too draws on the violence and abuse Chankrim has both experienced and observed in his young life.
In the painting, blood weeps from a wound and from the eyes of a paranormal, contorted figure.
The similarities of the artists extend beyond the content: the show’s title references a likeness in style and technique the artists have developed. Chankrim seems to scratch or “knit” to give the moody artworks texture, using pencils and a paintbrush as a needle, while the surrealist, naked figures of Hak’s works are twisted and “woven” together.
The melancholy paintings were unveiled on Friday night at Phnom Penh based architect and artist Thang Sothea’s Top Art gallery.
Chankrim said his intricate, arduous technique also symbolised the “complicated life” he had led.
Hak, 23, says he, too, primarily paints and creates for cathartic reasons.
“I too was abused as a child worker in Thailand and moved from orphanage to orphanage... from a violent home, with domestic abuse... I wonder how many children are living this nightmare and why?”
He uses materials such as ground coffee beans, fish oil, water, along with acrylic and oil, to create entwined, naked bodies.
Angry is cruel and violent, with phallic symbols and tongues, and the presence of a small child, suggesting domestic violence and rape. The backdrop to the painting is a wall of gilded Khmer script, explaining its meaning.
“[Rape and domestic violence] is one of the biggest issues in Cambodia,” he says.
“All of my figures are naked... to show how vulnerable and exposed the people of Cambodia are.
“The Khmer script is there to explain any symbolism... I also find that local audiences have so far found it harder to digest contemporary art and understand it. I really want this to change,” he says.
Perhaps Hak’s most confronting and bold piece in the collection is a pair of mosaic-ed, unsettling paintings, one hung above the other, opaquely titled Excellency.
Hak will not say who the bespectacled government official is in one of the paintings, but says the bottom image – a bloody hand extending over a screaming face, barbed wire twisted around the figure’s neck – represents corruption and human rights abuses in Cambodia.
“Am I worried I could get into trouble [for the artwork]? Well yes, that’s why the reference to who it is isn’t so clear...”
“The mirrored mosaics are a reflection for the Cambodian people before they vote this year – I wish Cambodian people would think carefully.”
Knitting and Weaving runs until March 3 at Top Art Gallery, #155 Sisowath Quay.