A self-taught artist who paints with house paint on home-stretched canvas is the subject of a new exhibition, titled Finding Home, at Hotel 1961.
Battambang-born Phok Sopheap, aka ‘Bee,’ is not a trained artist and only started painting two years ago.
Curator and Hotel 1961 owner Loven Ramos says it was Bee’s passion for art that first drew him to the painter’s work.
“Why we fell in love with Bee’s work is that he’s a self-taught artist,” Ramos says. “He didn’t go to school at Phare Ponleu Selpak or anywhere else – he’s a total outsider from that artistic community. He just literally immersed himself in the world of other artists and that’s how he got into it, sheer passion.”
Bee started painting in 2011 and later met Ramos at the Angkor Art Explo Festival, where he was one of the invited artists from Battambang.
“I saw so much potential in him,” says Ramos. “It’s exactly my story as well because I never went to school. I was self-taught so I see a lot of myself in him.”
Finding Home, a collection of eighteen paintings in which the themes of women and family feature strongly, is so-called because Ramos feels that Bee, who had a lukewarm reception with his first exhibition, has finally found a home.
“First and foremost he is an orphan,” says Ramos. “He helped raise his family. Also, when he first exhibited in Battambang he didn’t exactly get good reviews because of course as an outsider, people from the artistic community found him too audacious with his strokes, his use of colour and with his use of material.”
Bee paints using house paint rather than regular acrylic because that is all he can afford. He also stretches the canvases himself and does his own priming and even then, Ramos says, only when he has the extra money to do so.
“I guess for us, that’s one of the reasons we opted to support him,” says Ramos. “He can’t spend that much money on materials and on realising his vision, his dream. So we felt an exhibition would be a perfect way for us to give him a home.”
Among the paintings are striking canvases of red or white mask-like faces on black backgrounds. The faces are stately-looking – each wears a crown and a solemn expression.
But a closer look reveals that the features are actually made up of cleverly concealed words relating to family. One says, “I miss my mother”. Another, “He is my brother.”
Ramos says, “It’s all about his family. The essence of family, a mother. It’s really the essence of home that he misses and is trying to find again.”
Bee adds, “It’s like kings and queens, or princes and princesses, because every face has a crown.”
Bee moved to Siem Reap a month ago and, as well as being artist-in-residence, is also being trained as the Gallery 1961 manager.
“He’s employed by us so he earns something in return,” says Ramos. “We wanted someone to help us manage the gallery on a more permanent basis, but we wanted that person to be local, someone who’s really involved within the artistic world and who knows the people in Cambodia. This is a great platform for him to be able to do that and to hone his skills further.”
Finding Home is on at the main gallery at Hotel 1961 until June 28.