The painting of a girl spontaneously bursting into smile with her face mask pulled down and only her teeth and gums showing is a subject matter that the artist – Vou Sosamnang – knows quite well given his profession as a maker of ceramic teeth.
Unlike most painters, however, Sosamnang doesn’t paint on canvas or do murals on walls. Instead, he uses the base of Khmer flat-weave baskets called chang ae.
Sosamnang cuts out the base of the basket and then – using a drawing he made on paper – he traces an outline onto it and then fills that in by painting it. Afterwards he puts it in a glass frame for display.
The aforementioned painting – Happy – was shown at last year’s White Canvas exhibition, where it received quite a bit of attention and praise, as did Samnang as a newly-identified “emerging artist” – and possibly the first painter ever with a professional career background in dentistry supplies.
“In my mind, the girl is showing her precious smile with the mask pulled down under her chin because she is trying to deliver some hope and happiness to people who need it because Covid keeps dragging on from one year to the next and it feels like it is sapping the energy and fun from many people’s lives,” Sosamnang explains to The Post.
Audiences must have sensed the positive energy that the artist was trying to convey because even though his painting didn’t win any prizes at the exhibition, by the end of the day the 40cm x 60cm piece was sold for $599 – a very good sum for a new artist, especially in Cambodia.
“As an artist I hope it will give people a little boost and help them see beyond the situation today and hope for the best, because one day this time [of Covid] will pass by and be just a memory, so I hope it awakens people’s joyful side,” he says.
Sosamnang says that art has always been something near and dear to his heart since he was a child and was still using paper instead of chang ae baskets as his medium of choice.
Over a decade ago, Sosamnang decided to take his art seriously and try to develop his skills further but at the time it just wasn’t very feasible to make a living solely as an artist because very few people had enough appreciation for such talents, so he started making ceramic teeth to support his family.
“I adore drawing and I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. Then in 2007-2008, I gave it a shot and tried making a living by selling my drawings but it just didn’t work out well, the market was still too narrow.
“Then later on in 2018, I realised that things in general seemed to be easier to discover and expose through social media like Facebook and Instagram and I was seeing a bunch of art from talented people and it moved my heart and I knew I had to pick up my pens and brushes again,” Sosamnang says.
When Sosamnang began creating art again he thought back to his first attempt at it in 2007 when he used to drive by a place where they sold all kinds of traditional Khmer cultural items and it gave him the idea to use something like that as his canvas.
He stopped by and bought a chang ae basket and began experimenting with it and right away he was fascinated by how the texture and underlying weave pattern of the basket added another dimension to his art, so he cut the centre piece of the basket out and put it in a frame.
This unusual technique and the effect it produces sparked people’s interest and one by one he’s had a steady stream of customers for his art ever since.
Sosamnang says that it is definitely a challenge to draw and paint on the rougher surface of the chang ae, which is more like a braid of bamboo. It’s time consuming and requires patience to complete each piece.
However, the 34-year-old artist says that the finished product will be as durable as anything drawn on paper or painted on canvas because he uses a special kind of ink and paint and then treats the surface with a chemical to fix it in place once he’s done.
“If you are just hanging it in a house or shop, it will last almost forever because I add some protective chemicals and they are covered by a glass frame. I’m confident of the quality because – speaking from experience – I have them hung in my house and they are still in good shape now,” he says.
Apart from his creative use of chang ae he has also made art using coconut branches, bamboo and wood surfaces to create drawings and paintings that are alive with detail and undeniable talent.
Sosamnang enjoys the praise he has been receiving for the quality of his work but he says the greatest compliment he’s ever received was when someone told him “our country needs more people like you.”
Those words motivate him to hone his skills as an artist and produce the best work he possibly can for every customer even though this is just a side pursuit separate from his business as a maker of ceramic teeth.
Most of the orders are from people who want a painted version of their photos, something he is able to do very accurately. He has also done design work such as logos and he illustrated a traditional Khmer story about the monkey god Hanuman.
Most of the patrons are local but there have been a few foreign customers as well who have contacted him through Khmer friends and customers.
Sosamnang’s drawings on plain A4 size paper start at $20, whereas a painting on bamboo or chang ae typically starts at $35 with frame.
Sosamnang says his dream is to open a gallery exhibiting his own art work and he also hopes to pass down his knowledge to the younger generation at some point.
“I don’t know what the future will hold but that is my dream. I hope to be able to see my art hanging in my own gallery with people coming just to enjoy viewing it. The second thing is that I hope to be able to share what I have in any way possible.
“I’m not a selfish person or someone who is jealous of other people’s talent or afraid that they’ll outdo me. Whatever I know, I will pass down. I’ve had some younger artists who have asked me for help. I help as much as I can because in the end the more talented people we have, the better off our country will be,” he says.
Sosamnang says he wants people to give their support to local artists and to open their eyes and realise how authentically talented Cambodians are.
“If we all support our artists they will have a broader market. If they can sell their art at a good price then they won’t need to suffer what I’ve been through when I had to give up something I loved to feed my family.
“That way they will be encouraged to focus on their art full-time. They will have plenty of time to develop their creativity and to become better at what they’ve been doing, to work on themselves.
“I believe that when we reach that point our country will make a big leap in development and the accomplishments of Cambodians will not only be known throughout the country but worldwide,” Sosamnang says.
For more information the artist can be contacted at: www.facebook.com/SamnangVou.