After spending a year isolated from the world while battling cancer, French-Cambodian artist and activist Adana Mam Legros re-entered society with a purpose and strong message.

Her latest collection of vivid geometric paintings are on display at a multidisciplinary exhibition at Rosewood Phnom Penh’s art gallery. Entitled Complementarity, it also features photographs by young artist Tytaart.

Legros’ parents are activists and own an NGO centred on fighting against human trafficking. Since she was very young, she’s had a heart for activism.

The 24-year-old artist says: “My parent’s activism had a major impact on my life. Their NGO fights against sexual exploitation of woman and children in Southeast Asia.

“Growing up seeing the misery and the violence in Cambodia, deep down in my heart I knew I had to do something about it too.”

She never thought of becoming an artist, but when she was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2016, everything changed.

“As a law student, I started to question my path because cancer put me through a lot of things. I always say I learned how to live by learning how to die.

“When you’re 21 years old, you’re supposed to be starting life and then you’re confronted with your death.

“It was a very spiritual journey which taught me resilience, and how to be tough and patient. I started to meditate a lot, and that taught me about awareness, my ego and the impact I can potentially have on others. I started to draw at that moment,” she says.

Legros was stuck in the hospital bed for two months and spent another six months recovering at home, unable to go out in public.

“I was pretty much alone for probably a year,” she says, and after her cancer treatment, she travelled to New York where her interest in art started to take shape.

“I gave myself six months to do an exhibition because I wanted to express myself and share with the world the lessons I’d learned,” she says.

In 2018, her dream came true and she hosted her first art exhibition.

Since then, the young talented artist has hosted about 10 exhibitions in galleries around the world, including Sydney, Paris, Brussels, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Legros spreads messages of unity through her art. Photo supplied

For the past two years, she’s been showcasing her life and experience battling cancer through her art.

She says: “I have two messages to share. One is the art of detachment and understanding the purpose of life – how we have to create a new and better society and a better world.

“The other [message] is about complementarity and finding one’s role in society, the family, and at the workplace, and how important it is to find your place in the world and know the impact you can have.”

When Legros started drawing, she was inspired by her inner pain and most of her art was very dark, for which she used only primary colours. She would paint women without hair or faces.

After nine months of introspection, she says she truly understood herself. It moulded and freed her from her past.

This is shown in her more recent drawings. As she started to reveal her more joyful side, the colours became more diverse and the once-blank faces have features and hair.

Legros draws in geometrical forms because she believes the universe can be viewed as a mathematical language.

“Through the art I’ve created, the speech, themes, philosophy . . . all of that, I hope, give a message. It’s like a wake-up call to the new generation about what’s happening around the world. We need to know our duty and role to protect nature,” she says.

Legros never attended art school and had to explore and experiment with drawing and painting techniques herself.

Even more difficult was deciding how to convey the creative messages stemming from her personal story.

Legros spends a long time on each painting because she’s less worried about how it looks and more concerned with expressing herself in the right manner.

She says she doesn’t limit herself to being an artist. She’d like to be a film director as well or take on any role that allows her to spread her messages to the world.

“When I draw, I look at the theme that I want to express. Before drawing, I do a lot of research. I spend months reading and finding the philosophy that goes with it [the theme] to mature my thoughts.

“I want to give myself the knowledge to portray in my art. When I start to draw, it starts with my brain, the thoughts take shape and then it flows from my hand. The drawing phase usually only takes me four days,” she says.

The exhibition covers various themes from femininity and masculinity to vulnerability, parenthood, empathy and compassion. The themes are portrayed through four of her paintings and seven photographs taken by Tytaart.

Complementarity aims to focus on finding ways to live together in harmony.

Legros says: “I don’t believe in inequality because it doesn’t matter if you’re not born with the same strength, power or things as others.

“I do believe in complementarity, which means if you are aware of who you are, aware of the impact you can have and your role in society, then you can find your place. It’s like a puzzle. You have to find where you fit and make something out of that.”

While battling cancer, Legros decided to drop her law studies and become a visual artist. Photo supplied

On the exhibition’s opening day, Legros also launched her movement called Generation C Cambodia. The “C” stands for “convivialism”, which is a philosophical and resolutely relational approach to the world.

“I came up with Generation C at first because of the coronavirus, but it can be used to describe many words that give value to generation C, such as complementarity, compassion, consciousness and not only for Cambodia but worldwide. It can be generation C France for instance,” she says.

Of all the paintings she has exhibited in Rosewood, the one that affects her the most is a blue painting depicting pictures of women.

“When I drew this, I cried a lot. Honestly, whenever I draw I cry a lot, some from joy, some from happiness, some from suffering, but this painting reminded me about my family, especially my mom.

“I used to be a tough teenager to my mom and I wanted to dedicate this piece to her. It’s like forgiveness for myself too. Time will fly fast, therefore I need to embrace every moment with the people I love because that is one of the true meanings of life,” she says.

She started selling her artwork for a few hundred dollars in New York, but as she started to sell out of paintings at functions, demand for them rose and so did the prices.

A buyer in Bangkok offered her $4,000 for one and now they range from $2,500 to $4,500 for originals.

For her next exhibition, Legros hopes she will be travelling to London in the next few months.

“I hope it works. Not only Generation C but every piece of art I’m creating. I hope to have a global vision of life as an artist,” she says.

Complementarity opened September 9 and will run until January 10, 2021, at Rosewood Phnom Penh.