For the past five years, Norodom Reth Virekbot has been living the life of a normal high school and then university student while creating digital artwork as a hobby or pastime.
On September 4, a new and exciting chapter of Virekbot’s life began with the first public exhibition of his work – titled Art Beats – at Drops Gallery.
Art Beats is the first exhibition of the year at Drops due to the Covid situation but it has so far been a success with both local and international patrons viewing the artwork. Virekbot says he’s honoured by all of the attention.
Virekbot, 20, initially began posting his creations online from time to time and he had no ambitions to do an exhibition using physical prints of his artwork until Drops Gallery curator Alexandre Barth reached out to him and the exhibition was ready for the public just two months later.
“Honestly, I’ve always been passionate with everything in the arts from dancing to playing musical instruments and doing visual arts. It’s just that drawing is the area where I’m strongest and have the most potential. Also, the performing arts generally require more time and resources to pursue,” Virekbot says.
Attendees at the exhibition’s opening showed their admiration as they walked from one piece to another, marvelling at the quality of the prints and Virekbot’s imaginative style.
“I am speechless over the opportunity I was given by Alex. Never in a million years would I have thought that I could receive this kind of recognition. Digital art itself – as far as I know – it’s not as valued on the international stage in the world of art, unless you are an undeniable talented – and I’m not one yet,” the artist says modestly.
For the Art Beats exhibition, Virekbot says he wanted to express the passion he has for art and the emotions and inner-feelings he was experiencing when he created each piece, because they were things that he isn’t often able to adequately describe in words.
“I’ve been drawing ever since I was little. I can remember studying with my grandma when I first began to love writing and then drawing,” he says.
Fifteen signed and numbered prints of Virekbot’s pieces were made and they have all been hanging at the gallery since the September 4 opening. The closing party for the exhibition will be on held September 23 but the prints will be available at Drops studio and for sale online for at least another two months.
“I’d been drawing on paper mostly growing up but over the last five years I decided to shift my art to digital for reasons of cost and convenience. It’s something I can do without having to spend on equipment like paint or brushes and it’s easy to store and lasts forever,” he says.
Virekbot is a natural talent who has – almost unbelievably – never attended an art class. As a university freshman he’s majoring in computer science and engineering. He says skills are self-taught through trial and error and by watching YouTube videos.
He says another online resource that helped him along was the website “The Art Assignment”, which has a video series that introduces viewers to innovative artists and presents them with assignments to work on while exploring art history through the lens of the present.
“My artworks are basically portraits and because I’ve constantly been working on them, now I can draw complicated things that involve intricate [mouse] gestures, which I couldn’t do before.
“Now I don’t even have to think about it, I can create almost unconsciously, whereas at the beginning I needed to do base tracing and concentrate just to get the techniques down. I can now say with confidence that I can draw whatever I feel like drawing,” he says.
He says his biggest inspirations come from an eclectic list that includes classical Greek or Roman art or later European paintings depicting scenes from those ancient cultures, video game art and pin up art of the type popularized in the 1940’s featuring glamorous women. He says he also focuses on pop culture and Khmer art influences.
The Phnom Penh resident says that he wants to apply the composition style of European paintings of Greek and Roman myths to paintings of similar stories from Cambodian culture because of the impressive way that those paintings – which typically date to anywhere from the 1500’s to the 1800’s, though they reached the height of their popularity during the Renaissance and Enlightenment-era Greek and Roman neo-classicist revival period – are able to encapsulate narratives from literature and tell mesmerizing stories.
He points out that throughout Khmer history – at least prior to the Khmer Rouge – this kind of storytelling through art can be seen carved into walls as sculptural reliefs on temples, the palace and elsewhere, sometimes depicting scenes from the Khmer epic poem Reamker – based on the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana – which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys.
“Khmer sculpture and paintings are somehow different in a way that they seem to express the gentleness of our identity and people can recognize them easily. I believe this could be one of the factors we can use to help promote our culture.
“That’s why I want to start taking it back and it must start from us. Because if not us, who? If not now, when?” Virekbot questions.
As far as future plans for his career goes, he says he’s still planning on graduating with a degree in computer science and engineering with the hope that it will help him achieve his dream of working in the gaming industry.
“For those of you who don’t know, game art has also evolved. Game art and design jobs involve working in the design-end of the video and computer game industry creating characters, backgrounds, plots and the other elements found in video games. Today, it’s not just about the game play or having fun but also the depth of the story writing and the design of the visual aesthetic,” he says.
Another dream of Virekbot’s is to one day exhibit his art in New York City and to be able to share Cambodia’s culture with the world. He says he’d also like to help shift the mindset of Cambodians to encourage artists here to focus on originality and innovation rather than copying, repetition or always sticking to what they know or were taught.
“While we must have logic, we must also have creativity. These two must be present simultaneously. At the same time, while artists are developing their skills they should also pay attention to conserving their culture or we might lose its unique influence. Artists specifically need to have a deeper knowledge of their own culture before studying others,” he says.
Virekbot further says that in order to compete on the international stage, Cambodians must maintain an attitude that pushes the boundaries and looks to create things that are new and different rather than just perfectly duplicate whatever other cultures have come up with.
“The most crucial point I have to make [to other Cambodian artists] is to keep trying. Like my situation before this exhibition wasn’t perfect. I was using an outdated tablet and having a lot of trouble with it but what I did was keep trying anyways and now I’ve made it here to the opening of my own exhibition.
“One thing’s for sure: However much effort you put into it will be reflected in the results that you get out of it,” Virekbot says.
To support Norodom Virekbot’s career as an artist visit: https://onlyidols.asia/Ousider
Drops Gallery is located on the second floor of Lot 1 on National Assembly Street in Phnom Penh and can be contacted via its Facebook page: @DropsKH
The Art Beats exhibition will continue to run until its closing event on September 23.