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Ping Vey: A surreal coming of age

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Oeur Sokuntevy’s exhibit Ping Vey is a surreal reflection on her experience of Cambodian social norms, told through a young man’s life. Photograph: Photo Supplied

Fairly tale endings and happily ever afters for the modern-day ‘boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl’ sequence of events may be a thing of the past as far as an art piece in Ping Vey, a new exhibition by Phnom Penh-based surrealist painter Oeur Sokuntevy, goes.

A glance at the work titled Lost Together reveals a man and a woman, represented as pig figures in reference to the artist’s Cambodian zodiac, standing on the balcony of their home looking into the distance in what appears to be a married couple enjoying some quality time together.

But take a closer look and their grim facial expressions say it all. Loathing and bitterness consume their days spent together.

And if you scrutinise the painting hard enough, you might even notice a bright yellow wristband, on the right arm of the male character, imprinted with a two-word sexual expletive.

“When there is marriage, there is a connection between both parties,” Sokuntevy says of the fine string that connects both of their snouts. “Five to ten years later, the connection is still there but they lose the feelings they had for each other.”

As the artist puts it, the relationship is confusing enough that they end up not knowing whether they hate each other or not.

Ping Vey, or “coming of age” in Khmer, draws on Sokuntevy’s own observations and experiences with the Cambodia of today to create a series of nine paintings, each resonating with the defining stages in an individual’s life.

“Growing up, my parents have reminded me that it is my future to get married and have kids. However, getting married doesn’t mean that I will be happy,” says Sokuntevy, one of Cambodia’s most established contemporary artists.

“But I can’t cut myself off from the culture completely. Even though I don’t see marriage the same way my parents’ generation sees it, I am still Khmer.

“This issue has been a struggle for me as well as for many Cambodians my age.”

Her previous works openly tell the story of the conflicts women of our generation face in trying to be themselves in a world where enduring conventions have defined the role of women in today’s society.

But with her 13th solo exhibition, Sokuntevy, better known in the local arts scene as Tevy, has decided to shed her distinct and familiar style by taking on an entirely contrasting perspective, one that involves the hopes and fears of a young man, depicted as a pig character.

“The paintings bring us through the many experiences in a young man’s life and how he experiments with different decisions in different environments,” says Tevy, an active contributor to the country’s emerging female arts movement.

In one painting, the man is lying on an open paddy field and falls into a deep sleep. He subsequently dreams of going wherever his feet take him.

However, a cobra with its venomous fangs evolves out of the bolster which he is clinging onto. In Khmer culture, there is a belief that dreams involving snakes are a sign that love is approaching and a premonition for marriage.

This leaves him in a dilemma because he has to choose between following his dreams or fulfilling a responsibility.

In another painting, there are three figures around a table in a typical domestic scene. A woman drinks from a cup on a tree branch that grows from the grandmother’s head, ingesting the history, culture and experiences of the previous generation.

In the background, the young man watches silently with a sense of hesitancy.

Till date, four of the nine paintings have been sold.

“It makes me happy to know that people like my paintings and they want to hang them in their homes,” says the 28-year-old.

For now, Tevy is preparing new work for her next solo exhibition in Singapore in early September. Next month, she will be conducting a painting workshop for youths at Meta House.

“In Cambodia, it is not easy to be an artist. You need to continually think of interesting ideas to engage people,” says Tevy. “Some of the youths have no idea what the job of an artist is like.”

“Hopefully, I will be able to share some tips and help them to achieve their goals.”

Ping Vey by Oeur Sokuntevy runs at Java Café and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Blvd, Phnom Penh, until June 24 and is open to the public daily from 7am-10pm.

To contact the reporter on this story: Calvin Yang at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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