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Young artist reimagines work as a child labourer


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Teenage child-labourer Hor Seya watched in horror as the policemen ran towards him at the farm he had been driven to with a group of fellow Cambodian workers. This was a turning point in his life as an illegal underage worker taking menial jobs across the border from his homeland to support his family. He managed to escape, but five in his group were arrested.

Now a 21-year-old art student, Hor Seya is about to show paintings inspired by his experience in a show called Waiting for Sunrise at the Romeet Gallery from December 7 to January 15 in Phnom Penh.

“I was born in the refugee camp in Thailand. We were transported back to our home country. My family lived in Siem Reap province, but our family faced hardship, so my parents decided to send me to work in Thailand six years ago,” Hor Seya says.

Hor Seya had to drop out of school in Grade 6 then and then travelled to Thailand with other young Cambodians. He got a job at farms feeding cows and harvesting chili or rubber in Rayong province, Thailand.

“I changed from one boss to another quite often. Some bosses treated me well but others treated me badly. One day, a boss brought me and other Cambodians to work at a farm near a mountain. When we arrived there, we saw many policemen running towards us. We understood immediately that our boss had cheated us. He didn’t want to pay us wages, so he arranged a trap by bringing us to the police. Actually, we were working there illegally,” Hor Seya says.

After five months, Hor Seya returned home with the little money he had left because he missed his family after he heard they had moved from Siem Reap to live in Oddar Meanchey province. He was sick of how his bosses treated him too.   

“I knew a lot of Cambodians around my age who travelled to work in Thailand. Some of them had the same problems as me. They were cheated by their bosses. Some of them walked back home to Cambodia because their money was taken from them,” he says.

When Hor Seya arrived at the border check point, he was questioned by an NGO there (he can’t remember its name). He was defined as a victim of human trafficking because he was just 16 years old.

That NGO sent him to another NGO in Battambang called Komar Reak Reay. While he was there, the NGO arranged for Seyha to attend art classes at Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS).    

Though it is six years since he stopped working in Thailand, the images of working there still linger in his mind. Recently, he came up with an idea to put these images into his work.  

“I named this exhibition Waiting for Sunrise because everybody waits for the sun to rise. My parents wait to see that one day our living standards will improve and I also wait to see an end to child labour,” Hor Seya says.

“Through this exhibition, I want all parents not to stop their children from studying and to stop sending them to work in Thailand. The children who are sent to work there don’t really get a better job. They can be exploited by their boss any time,” Hor Seya added.

Romeet Gallery’s manager, Kate O’Hara, says that whilst ‘child labour’ and ‘human trafficking’ are oft-bandied terms in the world of development, this artist enables his audience to get to grips with them first-hand .

Hor Seyha deftly presents the familial complications and realities of his experience through the use of a distinctive visual vocabulary. The repeated use of various shapes alongside common symbols such as snakes and flips-flops build a unique psychological landscape in this series of paintings. Some figures like the artist’s mother and father appear to be dissolving through Seyha’s layered and dripping painting technique, placing them at a distance, as in memory.

“The legacy of trauma in Cambodian painting is not uncommon, however Hour Seyha offers an alternative modality, a personalised and coded one, which enables the artist to claim this history as his own,” Kate O’Hara says.

On December 17, at 6pm, Seyha will conduct a question and answer session at Romeet Gallery, 34e, St 178, Phnom Penh.

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