Julianne Sibiski – an American poet, all flame locks and luminous skin – sits atop a table on Romeet gallery’s tiled patio, unperturbed by the stifling heat, stamping her name on a stack of exhibition postcards.
She seems soothed by the precise process of printing, as she sits beside her artist boyfriend Phousera Ing (better known as Séra).
He’s a stark contrast, with a salt-and-pepper flecked mop of hair and dark, brooding eyes enveloped in clouds of cigarette smoke.
“You are a thing of smoke, pinned to the corner … of this room,” reads a line from A Thing of Smoke, a poem of Sibiski’s and the title of the couple’s first collaborative exhibition, which will open tonight in Phnom Penh at Romeet.
The exhibition – a collection of Séra’s abstract, swirling acrylic, ink and pencil creations showcased alongside Sibiski’s poems – is named after a metaphor she had created for her lover.
“My very first images were of him with this cigarette. Graphically this image had been seared into my mind – the smoke made everything softer, even the silence,” she says.
“That was his personality ... just as much as something escapes you, you want to reach out and hold it … you can be in awe of something as it transforms and never stays the same . . . a constantly changing vision can be a perfect thing, really…”
Sibiski says the same complexities were apparent in Séra’s artwork. “What I think is fantastic [about his paintings] are the snippets and textures of other paintings stuck in the middle . . . You can see through the window but there’s an illusion of visibility . . .”
The artwork, painted on delicate Chinese paper and mounted on canvas, in moody, dark colours along with the artists’ trademark aquamarine hues sells well for Romeet, particularly amongst the French community in Phnom
Penh, curator Kate O’Hara says.
It was the French embassy where Séra, born in Phnom Penh in 1961, was ensconced on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forces rolled through the city, and later that month fled over the Thai border with his French mother. His Cambodian father remained, and perished under the brutal regime.
He has vivid memories of a peaceful childhood, his mother reading French comic books to him – surely an influence to the more 20 graphic novels the artist produced later in life (in 2003 his illustrated Maus-like account of the genocide, Impasse et Rouge, dedicated to his father, was published).
Sibiski and Séra met at Paris’s illustrious Sorbonne University, where the latter teaches, and they aim to soon publish a book of the poetry and artwork of the same title, in Khmer, French and English.
The work, Sera says, is rooted in his Cambodian identity and his experience of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship and a search for identity.
“I am an artist who works on memory and genocide, but that’s not all my work is,” he says.
“The biggest challenge [to contemporary Cambodian art] is being able to understand concepts that run through the contemporary art world … [It is] a challenge to bring art to Cambodia that speaks differently, . . . but that also stays true to underlying Cambodian art.”
“His work is becoming less and less dark, less tortured . . . where we cross is this idea of something less polished, more raw, not made pretty … and it’s very much closing a cycle for him,” Sibiski says.
He says he steers clear of political discourse but concedes that the symbols of the “horrors created and perpetuated by political forces is very much a part” of his work.
So too are women: the female form is paid homage to in much of the artists’ work.
He says that there was an over-representation of men in the recent New York-based Season of Cambodia visual art program, of which he took part in. But he saw great promise in young female artists such as Tith Kanitha and Oeur Sokuntevy.
“Men have too much power here … It’s harder for female artists and that needs to change,” he says. “You cannot become a slave to the same work … In French we always say, either you change or die.”