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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An exhibition of resilience at city gallery

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Mil Chankrim drew inspiration from Austrian painter Egon Schiele for his latest exhibition Me Mai, which includes the paintings Full of Emptiness (below right) and Loss of Balance (below left). Pha Lina

An exhibition of resilience at city gallery

Just days after a fire that destroyed dozens of artworks in Java’s office, the cafe and gallery opens an exhibit of works saved from the flames

The 24 portraits in Mil Chankrim’s exhibition Me Mai are immediately jarring: the brightly coloured female figures twist at impossible angles; their eyes speak beyond the frames.

These are women left on their own. “Me mai”, loosely translated as “widow” in English, in Khmer refers simply to a woman who has been abandoned in any way by her husband. In each of their faces, there is anguish — and also an element of resilience.

For the 25-year-old artist, a member of the Romcheik 5 collective in Battambang, the paintings, now on display at Java Cafe and Gallery, come from a deeply personal space.

“It is a real story of my mother in my family. My father divorced my mother. The story happened when I was young, but it was still in my life and in my heart,” Chankrim said. After he turned 8, he worked illegally in Thailand and lived primarily with his grandmother and an aunt.

For Me Mai, Chankrim chose to paint in watercolour on paper rather than his usual medium, oil. His figures are sharply rendered, reminiscent of the work of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, from whom he took some inspiration. The emotion conveyed is immediate and universal.

“Before I focused on myself, but this time I wanted it to be about all women in Cambodian society,” he said. In this respect he is successful. The stories of the women he paints seem interwoven, not individual.

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Dana Langlois, Java’s founder and owner, said she had kept her eye on Chankrim since first seeing his work in Battambang. When Romcheik 5 approached her with his new work, she was impressed. For her, the narrative force behind the exhibition, as well as Chankrim’s technical development, make it particularly cohesive — and powerful.

Me Mai is Chankrim’s second solo exhibition in Phnom Penh. It nearly didn’t happen.

Two weeks ago, a fire in an apartment building adjacent to the cafe destroyed 150 pieces of artwork stored in Langlois’ office.

She and her staff rushed to recover Chankrim’s portraits and over 300 other works from the flames and subsequent water damage as the building burned.

For the affected artists and the apartment residents, the tragedy has tested their own resilience. Without art insurance, recouping the works that were lost is daunting. “Of course, there is liability, but then again, how do you appraise the value of artwork in a market that doesn’t exist?” Langlois said.

She said she has plans to work with the artists to raise money to compensate for their works, adding that the Phnom Penh community has been incredibly supportive so far.

In the meantime, Langlois considers the opening of the exhibition to be an incredible stroke of luck amid the adversity.

“The most significant thing about this exhibition is that it was actually saved from the fire,” she said.

Me Mai by Mil Chankrim is currently showing at Java Cafe and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard. The exhibition will run until
November 29.

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