Him Hemalay’s road towards the arts began when he was just a child. Now he spends almost all of his time in Wat Tuol Tom Pong where he occupies a hobbit-sized room that acts as his studio
Him Hemalay’s artistic journey began when he was 14. Having spent most of his childhood under the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, the artist found himself fascinated by the frescoes that lined the walls of temples in Kampong Cham province where he grew up. “I grew to love the Buddha, and I wanted to draw his face,” said Hemalay. “When I saw the paintings on the walls, I wished I could be a painter some day.”
After becoming a monk, he discarded the name given to him by his parents, Phai Hem, for Him Hemalay. Now 46 years old, he spends almost all of his time in Wat Tuol Tom Pong, where he occupies a hobbit-sized room that acts as his studio. Wooden beams show cracks as they hang threateningly from the ceiling. Bony kittens with matted hair whine as they dart in and out of the open door.
Propped against the makeshift walls are vast canvases that depict both rural and religious life in Cambodia: monks paying homage to Ta Prohm, buffalo pulling carts while the sun sets over rice paddies behind them, elephants trudging through Angkor Wat.
These are the kinds of paintings tourists trip over themselves to buy. You might find them in the corridors of Central Market, the boutiques of Siem Reap, or adorning the shops of the aptly named “art street” that lines the National Museum, 178.
In the past 20 years, almost all of Hemalay’s customers have been tourists. “Cambodian houses don’t have paintings, not because of culture but because they’re so expensive,” he said.
But his art is critically acclaimed. In 2000, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts awarded him third prize in a national painting competition with the theme of heritage. His work depicted a temple with a new car in the foreground, its tyres lying next to it.
Around the scene, trees have been felled. “I don’t like how newcomers cut trees near temples - they do it a lot around there. Temples are our heritage,” he said.
The artist’s preoccupation with Cambodia’s heritage is evident in his life story. After he started studying temple art, he began to mimic these scenes with pen and paper, and he would show them to elderly people who were keen to rekindle their religious devotion after years of hardship.
“After the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had no paintings, no pagodas – nothing. That’s why I started to draw in books, to show them to old people in the pagoda, to make them smile,” he said. “I knew they would be interested in them. At first it was just a game, but then I saw that my pictures were beautiful, so I put in more effort and started to paint other things.”
As he learned more about the teachings of the Buddha, Hemalay felt he was able to copy frescoes and eventually started painting temple walls – first in Kampong Cham and later in Wat Tuol Tom Pong.
However, 20 years later he is no longer a monk and lives in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Doung district with his wife and two sons aged 11 and two. He gave up his religious order to earn a living to support his family.
But the pagoda allows him to work in his studio every day at Wat Tuol Tom Pong, where he not only produces paintings to sell, but also teaches art to about 20 students. “Because I used to be a monk, I can help them with drawing and painting,” he said.
His students – some of whom live in the pagoda – include orphans. In the future, he also hopes to teach the poor that live on the streets as he believes it’s important that the younger generation learns about art.
“It’s better than them being on the road begging. When they come here they can practise, and then one day maybe they can sell paintings too,” he said. It’s not just visual artists whose religion inspires them to pass on skills to others. Meanwhile, Pich Sarath, 30, plays chapei dang weng – a traditional Khmer two-stringed instrument – and lives in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district. Like Hemalay, he also lives in a pagoda – Wat Neak Ka Vorn, where he has been based since 2005.
He developed a devotion to the Buddha through his parents, grandmother and his neighbours when he was growing up. His devotion inspired him to work hard at his music and teach other people.
“I realised that I felt so good following Buddhist rule. Whenever I did good things, it really helped me,” he said. “Buddhist rule is like magic medicine for me.”
Sarath teaches high school students from Phnom Penh and the provinces, doctors, engineers and even foreigners. “I love teaching students, especially young Cambodian people, because all kinds of the arts are important,” he said. “We need to preserve classical arts like the chapei dang weng.”
Last month, Hemalay entered a painting in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ competition, but was told he couldn’t enter twice. The ministry sent him an appreciation letter and money as compensation. Although this might not seem a lot to some, this small token means he doesn’t want to sell the work – a reminder of the artist’s close ties to Cambodia.
It hangs to the right of his easel – a marvellous swirl of blue and yellow watercolours, through which iconic Cambodian shapes gradually emerge – an Apsara dancer here, a golden stupa there.
As Hemalay works, the painting serves as a reminder of his true love: Cambodian cultural heritage.