Artists explore themes of gender and sexuality despite social taboo

Artists explore themes of gender and sexuality despite social taboo

THE Cambodia Pride 2010 festival kicked off Monday evening at New Art Gallery with the opening of an exhibition exploring themes of gender and sexuality.

The show – organised by Sa Sa Art Gallery – features work in various media by six artists: Em Riem, Oeur Sokuntevy, Teang Borin (aka Din), Alan Flux, Nick Sells and Viet Le.

Co-curator and Sa Sa Gallery manager Lyno Vuth said there are not many artists in Cambodia who deal with gender and sexuality issues in their work, and he was happy to find six people to participate in the exhibition.

“We didn’t consider the background of the artists, only their work,” he said. “Whether or not they’re gay is not important, as long as their work is in accordance with the theme.”

He added that one of his goals for the show was to present a complete picture of Cambodia’s gay community.

“We wanted to have work that reflected on gay men, on lesbians, because the community itself is quite diverse, and we tried to show its angles,” Lyno Vuth said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to find any work about lesbians.”

Indeed, most of the art in the exhibition focuses on the male form – even if it is sometimes covered by female clothing, as in photographs taken by Nick Sells from a number of events in Phnom Penh in the past year.

One exception is a series of coloured pencil drawings of a nude female by the exhibition’s other curator, Alan Flux.

He said gender and sexuality were themes that artists have explored through history, whether they happen to be gay or straight.

“The body, in all its forms, shapes and sizes, has traditionally figured in artists’ work, and with that comes gender and sexuality,” he said.

“So I think it’s a very, very natural thing for people to work on.”

Flux said he made his drawings from Khmer models who were not professional and were therefore not accustomed to sitting for a long time, so he made the initial sketches in 15 or 20 minutes, and later spent hours finishing them.

He pointed out that one of the main cultural differences between Khmer and Western artists is that in Cambodia, art students do not get the chance to practice life drawing from the nude body.

“One of the most difficult things to portray is the human body, so that’s the main emphasis of art training in the West. That’s not the case here, but they really want to do it and they’re frustrated that they can’t. They can draw the clothed figure, but then you’re really just drawing polyester.”

This lack of experience drawing from live models does not necessarily mean that all Khmer artists are shy about portraying the human body, as evidenced by other work at the exhibition.

Teang Borin (aka Din), who pursued higher education in architecture but has never had any formal training in painting, has focussed his talents on depicting the male form, but he has been unable to find models willing to pose for him.

“I take photographs from the internet and pick one part of the body for the painting,” he said. In the case of the acrylic painting Charm (2010), that part was the male torso.

Completely at ease with the concept of abstract art, Din said his paintings are never “finished” in the traditional sense.

“I might get halfway done and think, it’s good, it’s finished. Charm was about 90 percent finished when I realised that it was good already and I didn’t need to add anything,” Din said.

“But sometimes I only get 15 percent finished, or even 10 percent, before I decide it’s good, but never 100 percent.”

Meanwhile, artist Em Ream knew he would face similar problems finding a model willing to be photographed and have his image reproduced as a “9/6 of diamonds” playing card, so he presented the work as a self-portrait.

“It is my portrait because here I cannot take a picture of somebody else for the show,” he said.

Em Ream – a graduate of Royal University of Fine Arts who also spent seven years studying art in France, and now owns Gallery X-Em in Phnom Penh – said the numbers nine and six were meant to evoke a sexual position popular with gay couples.

“The number is symbolic of homosexuality because you can … you can …” he said, trailing off into laughter.

Oeur Sokuntevy, who studied painting at the Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang and then moved to Phnom Penh in 2007 to make a career as an artist, used oil paint applied in thick, curly layers to depict gay men in various states of undress expressing their love for one another.

The result, she admitted in her artist’s statement, were paintings that were “sometimes sexually provocative and for some maybe shocking”. But she also intended to create images that would be “overflowing with tenderness and warmth”.

“My objective is to draw attention to the feelings of love between two men and make the comparison with love between a man and a woman,” she wrote.

“These feelings are natural and they are the same. They shouldn’t be subjected to any taboo; they should remain free of any restriction.”

The Gender and Sexuality art exhibition is showing at New Art Gallery, #20 Street 9 (next to Phsar Kapko) until June 10.

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