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Khmer artist becomes war refugee twice

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Ouk Dara Chan in a photo with one of his paintings. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Khmer artist becomes war refugee twice

Ouk Dara Chan, a 62-year-old Cambodian artist whose life has been displaced for a second time by war, recently opened exhibitions of his collected works in two French cities.

His 32 paintings, predominantly featuring Khmer temples and Cambodian motifs, are being shown in Besancon and Lyon, with the profits of his sales going to the people of his adopted home, Ukraine.

“Emotional happiness is about doing something optimistic and successful; more or less the most important thing is to act in solidarity, helping each other regardless of thinking of personal gain. This is my first step and I will continue,” he said, via social media.

The exhibition was a significant moment for Dara Chan, who has lived and worked, and even married, in Ukraine for many years.

“I was a refugee from Lon Nol, and then the Khmer Rouge. Now, I am fleeing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I had an idea of how I could help, and am determined to support those who cannot escape,” he told The Post.

Dara Chan explained that he had been living in Ukraine since he was selected to study art at the then-Soviet Union in 1985. He is married and has two children.

He attended the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1980, and in 1985, due to his excellent results, was selected to study in Ukraine. He was still there when the USSR dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine received its independence. When his children were born, he elected to stay in Ukraine until he was forced to flee by the recent war.

“I didn’t want them to grow up with no father, as I did,” he said. “My father sacrificed his life on the battlefield in the 1970s, when Khmer Rouge soldiers killed him when I was just nine years old.”

He has been painting regularly since the 1990s, focusing mostly on Cambodian art, with a little Ukrainian content.

He said that since he moved to Berezan, near Kyiv, he has exhibited his work each year, in a bid to let the people of the city learn about him and his homeland.

Although his work is well-known, he does not support himself and his family with his art. He has been a life-long practitioner of taekwondo, and runs the popular Dragon Club, which has more than 100 members.

He and his family fled the country for France when Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago.

Dara Chan explained that he had not had much time to paint since arriving in France, which is why it had taken more than a year to organise the exhibitions.

“In France, art materials are also more expensive than at home in Ukraine, with a brush costing up to 25 euros – much higher than in Cambodia,” he said.

“The French government provided homes to Ukrainian refugees. I was painting in the kitchen of the first place we stayed, but now we have a little more room,” he added.

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Ouk Dara Chan’s paintings depicting the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. PHOTO SUPPLIED

He brought his wife and daughter to France, although his son remains in Ukraine.

“He is very patriotic. He wants to become a soldier, but my wife convinced him to wait a while longer. He is taking care of the taekwondo club. My daughter did not want to come to France with us – she wants t o join the army, too,” he said.

His art is heavily influenced by Khmer art, and he uses his paintings to explore themes of identity, culture, and displacement.

“Due to a lot of requests from the public, I have recently begun incorporating imagery which relates to the Russian invasion. In general, I prefer to explore cultural themes,” he said.

The majority of the works that are on display feature the Kingdom, with some of the war, and three with represent France and its culture.

His Cambodian paintings are based on a combination of his own memories of the temples, photographs taken by friends, and his own imagination.

For Dara Chan, the exhibition is a chance to share his art with a new audience and to reconnect with his Cambodian roots.

It is also an opportunity to reflect on his experiences of living through the war in Ukraine and to use his art to express the pain and trauma that he and his family had experienced.

He published a 1,000 page biography in French, which details his artistic journey from 1980 to the present. It contains prints of many of his paintings, old and new, and serves as a comprehensive companion piece to the show.

In addition to the exhibition, Dara Chan is also involved in a joint project with other Cambodian artists to donate to Ukrainians.

The project is a testament to Dara Chan’s commitment to using his art to make a positive impact in the world.


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