Young Battambang artist Chea Sereyroth remembers a journey of reflection, when he travelled back from Phnom Penh to his home of Battambang in 2008, zigzagging down the highway past endless, emerald rice fields.
At the time, Soreyroth was only 19, and a visual arts student at Phare Ponleu Selpak – a social cultural and arts centre in the country’s second biggest city. He had taken part in an intense workshop with the revered, late painter and S21 survivor Vann Nath and graphic novelist Phousera Ing (better known as Séra).
The Memory Workshops spanned over five years (Nath was not present for the last year, passing away in September 2011), with the two exploring memory and Cambodia’s darkest hours under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime with 12 emerging artists.
The classes drew inspiration from Columbia professor Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory”, which argues that the repercussions of mass murder are felt not just by the victims but by descendents generations later. They were also held to foster healing among the young group.
Sereyroth said the experience had a profound influence on his work – seen in his latest collection: five vast, detailed paintings using earthy pigments and sawdust to depict Cambodia’s genocide, which have been sent to Singapore for an Asia-wide exhibition.
“I was deeply affected by Vann Nath’s stories, for a long time. It inspired me, how could I use this? [The Khmer Rouge regime] is such a part of my generation too. I thought of his story, starting in Battambang and then being thrown into Tuol Sleng … his pain and suffering, his sacrifice.”
But the story Soreyroth said distressed and moved him the most was of Nath being escorted to the bathroom inside the former high school (under Pol Pot, it became a prison and one of at least 150 execution centres where an estimated 16,000 were tortured and killed).
“He picked up a magic mirror – a small shard on the floor. When he caught his reflection he said he could not recognise what he saw, that he no longer looked like a human being.
“I was silent when he said that – in shock, ” Soreyroth said on Monday from his office at Phare’s graphic design studio in Battambang. After graduating from the school in 2010 he completed a short design course and landed a job in their graphics team – he said the precision and resolve and creativity it fostered continued to inform his painting.
Sereyroth pored over books and images at Bophana’s library and talked intimately with his family and older generations, survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. He learnt under Sera how to mix acrylics and oils and create abstract watercolour shapes and swirls.
“A week later I took a picture and just played with many materials… with sand, sawdust… the people [in my paintings]live under the ground, under the earth, I like that [symbolism].”
He said he continued to work on the paintings once the workshops concluded, for years, and he has now seen the fruits of his labour. Three of the paintings have now been sent to Singapore for a new festival, SPOT ART Singapore – a high quality, Asia-wide juried art festival for artists under 30, running from October 25 to November 4. With links to this year’s Singapore Biennale, support from contemporary art heavyweight Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and a highly esteemed panel of seven judges (Indonesian curator Aminudin T.H Siregar, researcher, writer and expert on Southeast Asian contemporary art David Teh and Bangkok Art and Culture Center director Luckana Kunavichayanont, to name a few), Soreyroth is one of 74 artists to take part in the show (two other Battambang artists, Ben Thynal and Bo Rithy round out the Cambodian selection) from around 300 applications.
Jerry Gunn, the festival’s co-director and a distinguished figure in arts management said the panel were immediately captivated with Sereyroth’s paintings: “The visual impact was very strong. There was a pause and then discussion built up, about this new generation and the nature of addressing trauma…there were also some allusions to other painters, such as Anselm Kiefer [the German painter who addressed his country’s dark past under Nazi rule].”
“Ben Thynal’s work was described as quite pop-arty. With Bo Rithy’s piece, there was something about the materials – was it a traditional agrarian tool, a musical instrument, that captured the jury, as did the compelling male figure in the centre.”
At Soreyroth’s house and studio, the artist unrolled his work to reveal metres-long paintings: haunting, poignant glimpses of Cambodia’s recent bloody past.
Using ink, acrylic and oil in muted tones and caramel coloured sawdust, the paintings show a sophistication in composition and a depth of perspective.
In one, a slight woman stoops under a shoulder pole, in another a girl, swathed in black, gazes at the viewer, behind a mound of skulls and bones.
“Who are the figures? They are from my mind. I want it to represent Cambodia as a country, this woman is Cambodia during 1975-9,” he said.
The stand-out is of a barren landscape, workers toiling the fields, impressive for its rendering of perspective: the figures withdraw and fade into the horizon.
Reminiscent of Fred Williams’ Pilbara Series, with earthy textures and hand painting, the landscape flattens into the background.
“I used my hand and thumbprints… When I started to draw I would step back often and imagine myself inside the painting and that was the method I used to create the perspective. For the size of these pieces, if I drew in small scale it wouldn’t show my intention to show to the people … using big paintings gave many ideas, could show the breadth of the idea.… There are many things happening within the painting,” he said.
“The thumbprints are really interesting, like an identity print in a way, with everyone moving into this crowd of anonymity,” Kate O’Hara, curator at Phnom Penh’s Romeet Gallery, said.
“There is a lot of space for him to explore in just the materials alone … It is very good work,” she said.
Gunn agrees: “I personally responded because of the heaviness in subject matter that he carries very well and carefully, the expression in the figures has a very empathetic rendering, it’s very expressive. To achieve that on that scale and size, to communicate a clear image, is impressive,” he said.
Soreyroth said he felt it important for younger generations to remember the trauma of the past – something he said the late Nath instilled in him, yet he admitted the heavy subject matter and dark space of the work had taken its toll.
“I’ll continue to use these materials and techniques.… I have much more to explore here. But, yes, perhaps I need to move away from this [theme] with my next work. It has been very difficult and consuming. I won’t walk away from it altogether but I have focussed on this for a long time now and it has at times been traumatic. I would often escape through sculpture, graphic design,” he said
Gunn said the festival had reached out, translating their press releases into Khmer, to Cambodia’s Royal University of Fine Arts but, as it had in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City universities, received no response. Rather, the festival had engaged with artists though independent galleries and organisations such as Phare, Romeet and Java, and San Art in Vietnam.
“We weren’t terribly surprised, they tend to be more traditional so these institutions don’t respond at all… lucky there are people on the ground... facilitating. Places like Phare are worthy of being part of a network of [arts] universities – they are schools, they are teaching people and are producing good work.… I think it’s an interesting idea.”
He said SPOT ART had, “by default” selected Cambodian artists in a response to the recent Season of Cambodia festival in New York, whose visual arts’ program was criticised for being poorly communicated to artists outside of the capital.
“Yes, we did follow that, we had a few conversations…we heard some voices saying it was great for Cambodia but perhaps a misconception that it represented all Cambodian art, when in fact it represented established artists and art specifically accessible to the west. We were quite happy to show the other side.
“The [Singapore] Bienalle in 2011 had a paid attendance of 190,000, so we aim to capture a large chunk of that audience.… It’s a great opportunity for the artists, with lots of international collectors and art professionals, it’s important for young artists working locally to experience art outside their own country and exhibit internationally.”