Born into a family of political activists, including her mother the famed women’s rights activist Somaly Mam, French-Cambodian artist Adana Mam Legros has carried on her family’s traditions by linking her art exhibitions with her political activism.

Mam Legros has continued her Generation C Cambodia cultural movement through her art, from her Complementarity exhibition at Rosewood Phnom Penh last October to her capsule exhibition Origins & Becoming at The Lounge at Plantation Urban Resort & Spa which opened earlier this month and runs until April 6.

According to the 24-year-old artist, Generation C Cambodia is a socially driven artistic movement encouraging new ways of thinking while placing a greater emphasis on collaboration, compassion and social responsibility. Based on the French “convivialist” movement, it promotes solidarity with others and social change.

“Generation C Cambodia uses art to convey psycho-social messages. Every event I’ve organised has a purpose and topics related to psychology, society, the environment and art. Since the Complementarity exhibition at Rosewood, I’ve been launching art events, conferences, and charity events,” Mam Legros tells The Post.

Origins & Becoming is composed of four abstract geometric acrylic paintings exploring different themes: Empathy and Compassion; Femininity and Masculinity; Honesty and Vulnerability; and Parenthood.

Honesty & Vulnerability, an abstract acrylic painting by Adana Mam Legros. Photo supplied

The solo exhibition is also meant to help promote the work of author Kyle Kao and his book Black – an autobiography shedding light on mental health issues like PTSD and inherited trauma from parents who were survivors of genocide in the 1970s.

“Usually I collaborate with other artists but in this case I am happy to help shine a spotlight on Kyle Kao and the book he recently wrote, Black. My movement Generation C Cambodia aims to amplify the voices of young Cambodians who want to express themselves or share their concerns.”

Mam Legros says that one of the themes of Kao’s Black overlaps with the theme of one of her favourite art pieces and is a subject she often returns to – parenthood.

Regarding this topic, Mam Legros explains that the underlying meaning of the work and the inspiration for it was that academic or formal education only gives children a set of tools necessary for their future professional lives – but segregated from other aspects of life – along with a rough theoretical or abstract understanding of the world. She feels that this is not enough to create a complete individual or a functional citizen.

She says parenthood goes far beyond [formal lessons] and that it is a transcendental gift of lifelong knowledge and experiences which are transferred to the offspring consciously and unconsciously.

She believes that it is also a transfer of genetic, cultural and emotional inheritance which is sometimes poisonous if no capacity for self-reflection is transmitted to the child along with it, because there is a risk that toxic patterns and behaviours such as neuroses will then be repeated.

Mam Legros’ view is that the Cambodian people have suffered many psychological traumas over the course of their recent history such as genocide, wars, famines, physical and psychological tortures, displacement, a culture of silence, the lack of a proper education and a resultantly poor vocabulary which has added up to a lack of ability to communicate, along with the chronic absence of parenthood, all of which has impacted the minds of many Cambodians and in turn impacts their behaviours.

Kyle Kao, author of Black, a book that sheds light on inherited trauma and the stigma of mental illness. Photo supplied

Her theory goes that the generation who endured the horrific events [of the 1970s] have been passing, unconsciously, their traumas to the next generation and those traumas then affect the ability of caregivers to offer children the necessary psychological elements for the construction or development of a healthy psyche.

“Parenthood is obviously the key factor in preparing children for adult lives and perspectives,” she says.

Mam Legros’ goal with Generation C is to give a platform to people who can have a positive impact on society and she finds Kao’s story inspiring and relevant to the parenthood theme found in her artwork.

That is why Mam Legros took the opportunity to invite Kao to join her at her exhibition’s opening event as a guest speaker.

Kao’s memoir, previously reviewed in The Post, is about growing up in post-civil war era Cambodia and his childhood filled with traumas inherited from his parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Artist and activist Adana Mam Legros. Jeremie Montessuis

Black touches on the subject of intergenerational traumas as well as topics like mental illness, addiction, sexuality, and personal redemption.

“I hope it is time for our country and people to remove the social and cultural pressures to stay silent on the subject of mental health and give space for individuals to express their psychological needs without being treated as though they were crazy,” she says.

Mam Legros says: “Cambodian society should evolve and be more permissive to creative minds and open to expressions of resilience as a cure [for mental illness] because it allows people to transcend disability and turn it into strength. And I think Black might be the first book written by a Cambodian author about the social stigma [of mental illness].”

She says the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of globalised society and civilisation and it is evident that today people around the world are in need of hope and long-term solutions.

“Hope is a key factor for human beings and I use my art in my activism. I strive to promote a more resilient global society and civilisation. There is an acute need for truth and a need to deeply understand our system and redefine our values and adapt to new situations,” she says.

She explains that only citizens who possess clarity of mind can truly have an impact on the world and help humanity understand basic questions such as where we are from and where are we going.

She says that after enough people have had an internal transformation at the individual level, it will become a reality at the collective level and we will be able to form a coherent society bonded by empathy.

“I believe that the shift will start with an awakening of the people at an individual and then collective level,” she says.

Mam Legros continues that “aware, ethical and responsible citizens are the key to solving all of our problems. I hope people read Kyle [Kao]’s incredible story and find out about the philosophy behind my artwork and when they contemplate my paintings they engage in introspection about their personal life experiences.”

The artist says the themes underlying Origins & Becoming are essentially about people beginning to understand themselves.

“I am exhibiting four artworks with specific psycho-social topics. I am passionate about psychology and how our minds are structured. [In my artwork] I am doing psychoanalysis of myself and learning so much about the unknown aspects of our mind and the power of it,” she says.

Mam Legros says the feedback she has received about her activism and art has been better than she expected. She says she has been able to meet a lot of people who encouraged her and gave her advice.

She says she founded the Generation C Movement to initiate positive change and hopes to have increased social penetration in the coming year and to move forward with it internationally as well.

In the near term, Mam Legros will be co-organising a big event scheduled for March 8 in partnership with Women in the City and Baramey Productions.

She says that with her events she wants to promote equality between men and women and move past the old version of feminism where women are inherently viewed as victims because she believes that a social shift to a new perspective is needed.

Mam Legros’ overall message to people is that “it is time that all of us reconnect. Reconnect to reality and disconnect from our daily virtual worlds”.

“We have an important job to do – for us and for the next generation. We have a duty to keep this planet an island of paradise in the vast ocean of the universe.

“I want to be part of promoting a new way of living together and for that we need to rethink the system and come up with solutions that are adapted to the present situation.”

Mam Legros’ capsule exhibition Origins & Becoming is open to the public until April 6 at The Lounge at Plantation Urban Resort & Spa located at No 28 Street 184 in Phnom Penh.