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Chheang Rena’s new exhibition ‘My City’ examines poverty, corruption and the lives of street children in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Artillery Cafe: Bringing healthy food and art from Phnom Penh

Young Cambodian artist, Chheang Rena’s My City is a series of paintings that examines the grubby underbelly of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

The acryclics detail urban scenes that were inspired by the artist’s time spent working with street children while volunteering in the city. In the images bright, playful colours define buildings and urban scenes but are hemmed in by dark borders that exceed their normal boundaries, and it never seems to stop raining.

“I wanted to examine the lives of the street children in the city, and the poverty and corruption they live with, especially around places like the White Building,” said Chheang, speaking about the notorious tenement on the inner city fringes that has
become a byword for crime and deprivation and seems to be permanently slated for demolition.

“But I wanted to strike an optimistic note too, which is why there is a lot of colour, because I think that despite it all, there is still a lot of hope in this country. The economy is rising, poverty is dropping.

“Plus, I love colour. It’s sort of my brand,” said the artist.

The exhibition is the first to go on show at the new Siem Reap Artillery, which finally opened its doors on Wat Bo Road last weekend.

“It took us two years to get here,” said owner Brittany Sims, almost as relieved as the hordes of Siem Reapers who have already beat multiple paths to the light, minimimalistically styled café where Chheang’s work lifts the colour palette, notwithstanding the darkness of her subject-matter.

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Rena’s paintings are on display at the newly opened Artillery Cafe, which serves up a range of healthy eats. Nicky Sullivan

The cafe serves up a mixture of vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, gluten-free and raw diet-based dishes that are very long on flavour and short on neurosis.

For Sims, the approach is not a trend, but based on hard experience.

“I used to have a lot of health issues, and finally discovered that they best way to deal with them was through diet,” she said.

“It also ties in nicely with my love for learning where things come from, which is why we’re working so hard to develop relationships with farmers so that we can ensure that our entire range of ingredients is locally sourced, chemical-free and organic.”

Sims discovered Chheang’s work a year ago and has exhibited another series in one of her three other Phnom Penh cafés. She said she was drawn by the young artist’s maturity and expressiveness.

“She’s so young, composed and articulate, and her talent comes to her very naturally.

I couldn’t help but be impressed. When I knew we were opening in Siem Reap, I couldn’t think of a better artist to complement the setting,” she said.

Born in Phnom Penh, Chheang is a self-taught artist who graduated just two years ago in communications and marketing in the United States, where her studies were sponsored by a religious organisation.

As well as painting pictures, she has also taught herself how to take them and is the founder of Big Eyes Photography, while also working as a communications executive.

The 24-year-old returned to Cambodia on graduating, but the transition has not always been an easy one.

“I’ve been away for a long time, so I’m in-between now, not Khmer, not American. It’s been difficult trying to fit in again.”

At Artillery, at least her work has already found a comfortable home.

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