A Vietnam War vet turned artist opens a new exhibition tomorrow at the Banyan Leaf Hotel on Taphul Road. Cambodia Images is a series of ten watercolour paintings, comprising portraits of Cambodian women set against backdrops of temples, bamboo forest and lakes.
Australian James An, aka Su Jia, who first came to Cambodia during the war and “flew many missions”, says he was inspired by and aiming to celebrate the strength of Khmer women.
“I was over here during the Vietnam War and saw the decimation, destruction and suffering that these people underwent and it always seemed to me that it was the women who were left behind to carry the load, do all the work and bring everything back together again,” he says. “Women have a huge role here and they’re not really recognised.”
“The concept here is really about Cambodia. It’s not about Angkor Wat, it’s about the Cambodian people and all I’m trying to show really is that the women are beautiful – they are wonderful, talented people, and given the education and the opportunity they can do many, many things.”
An exhibits under the name Su Jia – meaning ‘Big Tree’ – which was bestowed on him by a respected Chinese artist, Mu Zhuzi. He uses two models for the majority of his paintings, Rachina and Nuth, who he paints in watercolour from a combination of live sittings and photographs.
Student and professional Apsara dancer Rachina appears in two paintings; Rachina, Apsara 1 where she shows off her skills, and Rachina, Leopard, Kandal Cub.
“That is one of the endangered species of Cambodia,” he says of the latter, which depicts Rachina holding a leopard cub. “Cambodia has its own species of leopard. To my knowledge there are only about four to six of these cubs alive in Cambodia today, they are highly endangered.”
A painting with which Su Jia feels a particular emotional tie is Tuol Sleng, The Horror, and is one of only two portraits that doesn’t feature his usual models. The mood of this picture is very different from the others – a girl stares out from the centre of the painting, a map of Cambodia behind her and bullet-holes and barbed wire picked out in the backdrop.
“The girl you see in that picture, that’s an actual copy of a photograph of a woman who was put to death at S21,” he says. “It was taken by the prison photographer. That photograph exists at the museum and if you look at the way I’ve depicted it the flash has just gone off, she’s just been photographed. She was a very strong person by the looks of it. She wasn’t screaming or doing anything, but she knew that moments after this occurred her life was ending. And where she’s standing, if you look closely at the wall you’ll see pock-marks from the bullets from the previous executions there.”
An wasn’t always an artist. Following a 16-year stint in the military and 22 two years working for an intelligence service, he rediscovered his love of painting while living in China, where he worked with Mu Zhuzi. He kept the artist name Su Jia out of respect for his friend and mentor, and has exhibited in Australia, Europe and the USA.
Following a successful run at the Sokha Angkor Resort, Cambodia Images will be shown at the Bayon Leaf Hotel for a month from November 16. A portion of proceeds from the sales of the paintings will go towards supporting various schools in Siem Reap province.