A new collaborative work between photographer Tim Robertson and illustrator Chantha Kong, focusing on heroism in Cambodia, has been unveiled at Equinox.
The result of a long friendship and a shared interest in news and current events in the country, Robertson, a US native, and Kong, raised in California to Cambodian parents, have depicted 11 of the country’s most lauded figures in Filling the Negative Space, an exhibition set to run until the beginning of September.
“It started with conversations we had, we’re good friends now,” says Robertson. “A lot of the conversations we had were around different things happening in Cambodia, in different arenas in life, the interesting things people are doing.”
“I spoke with a few local people and they didn’t know much about any of them,” adds Kong. “We felt that they needed to be honoured in a way in which we can capture with our artistic abilities. It’s the way we want to recognise them here in Cambodia.”
It’s fitting that an exhibition devoted to heroism is being held in a street near Wat Lanka, a pagoda intricately bound to the legacy of two towering figures of Cambodian society, both for tragic reasons.
Towards the beginning of 2003, Sam Bunthoeun, the president of a Buddhist meditation society, was gunned down at the gates of Wat Lanka. The year of a national election, Sam had devoted himself to teaching citizens that voting did not contravene the principles of Buddhism.
Almost exactly a year later, Chea Vichea stood reading a newspaper by one of the kiosks that line the edge of the pagoda on Street 51, when a man walked towards him, raised a pistol and shot him in the head, wrist and heart before speeding away on an accomplice’s motorcycle.
The founder of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Chea Vichea was a tireless advocate for workers’ rights and campaigned in support of the Sam Rainsy Party during the elections.
The two men that were arrested and charged in connection with the death were widely believed to be innocent. Authorities have repeatedly prevented the screening of a film about the union leader’s murder.
After eight years of agitation, a monument to Chea Vichea is set to be constructed with funds from the Phnom Penh Municipal Government and the Free Trade Union near the site of his murder.
As one of the standout pieces, Robertson and Kong’s depiction of the labour leader against a noir backdrop of buildings and powerlines serves as a fitting tribute in lieu of the sandstone memorial set to be completed later in the year.
Robertson and Kong’s fascination with larger than life campaigners extends to Chut Wutty, the environmentalist gunned down in Koh Kong earlier in the year, in circumstances that remain murky, while escorting two journalists to a site of suspected illegal logging.
A man whose antagonism towards obstructive authorities and casual brinkmanship when faced with a threat was the stuff of legend among reporters, Chut Wutty’s story struck a particular chord with Kong, who illustrated him above a photograph of a tranquil field.
“I feel that Cambodia is a beautiful country. What Chut Wutty was doing was trying to teach people that that was the case, which is really important with the land grabbing and illegal logging going on at the moment,” says Kong.
Other canvasses in the exhibition demonstrate the pair’s eclectic tastes. On the walls are the revered face of the wildly popular ‘60s singer Sinn Sisamouth, influenced by the British Invasion and rock groups revolutionising music in the west at the time, later believed to have perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge’s nihilistic anti-culture crusade.
Mu Sochua, a prominent politician, stands alongside Somaly Mam, a fellow advocate for victims of sex trafficking.
“The one I really liked the best was Ou Virak,” says Robertson, referring to the pair’s depiction of the President of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “Of all of the people there’s such a variety, and I had a hard time deciding who had the most inspirational story for me. When I saw that piece the first time, the composition and the interaction with the photo background, for me that was straight away my favourite.”
In each piece, Kong’s renderings bear the hallmarks of religious iconography, an artistic quirk attributable to the Christian faith he says makes his work possible. For Robertson the pair’s common cause has provided an exciting artistic enterprise.
“I didn’t know he was a sketch artist at all,” Robertson says. “I’d known him for more than a year already, and I liked his work and we started talking about ways we could collaborate together. It was all rather organic. I said I’d make some backgrounds on canvasses and you can portray some of these people we’ve been talking about. I let him decide with his creative instinct. I really liked that process and he blew me away with each one.”
Filling the Negative Space will be on display at Equinox until the beginning of September.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]