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Coming out in Cambodia: art series captures stigma

The Salt Seeker, a diptych part of the Thoamada II collection, which examines LGBT issues in Cambodia
The Salt Seeker, a diptych part of the "Thoamada II" collection, which examines LGBT issues in Cambodia. VUTH LYNO

Coming out in Cambodia: art series captures stigma

Vuth Lyno’s 2011 exhibition, "Thoamada" — a collection of portraits and audio recordings of nine gay and bisexual men from around Cambodia, faces brushed with vivid strokes of paint — proved to be the catalyst for one of the most significant moments in the 31-year-old artist’s life.

Thoamada, the Khmer word for “normal” or “everyday”, was an ironic tag for the photography series, which revolved around the stigmatisation the LGBT community in Cambodia faced. As a young gay Cambodian, he and his peers were often slapped with the word katoey – meaning “unnatural”, or a person who will not have a good future.

On Saturday night, Lyno launched a book on the series, which includes memories from the subjects along with contributions from acclaimed writer Prumsodun Ok and curator Viet Le.

Last year he followed up the collection with an extension, "Thoamada II", a series of sweeping, diptych photographs. It focuses on the families of LGBT Cambodians — in particular those who challenge the traditional Khmer family roles and values.

Work on the project began in 2009, when the artist said he noticed an increase in public discussion about LGBT. He was keen to prove the detractors wrong and set out, with the help of Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), working with nine men, from Phnom Penh and far-flung provinces and with wildly different experiences and backgrounds.

The personal stories of Lyno’s subjects prompted him to come out to his close, but somewhat conservative family, “one of the most difficult moments of my life”.

Claire Knox spoke with the artist, also the artistic director of Sa Sa Art Projects, who will begin a two-year master's program in art history at the State University of New York this Sunday.

What was the inspiration for the book?
I realised exhibitions don’t generate the widest audience — and the main people I wanted to see this were Cambodians in the provinces, so a book is more accessible. RoCk sponsored the printing, and they have a great LGBT network all around the country, so they will distribute the majority of the 1,500 copies for free.

How did your experiences growing up as a gay man in Cambodia shape your work?
Very much. [In 2009] I hadn’t come out in public, but I guess most of my friends had an inkling, through the projects I had worked on. When I did come out, many cheered and congratulated me. Working on "Thoamada" was so inspiring.

Most of the men had not yet come out. For some, it was the first time they had shared these stories; it was therapeutic to see the diversity. One man chose to have his face painted like an ogre. When I asked why, he said, “Most people are scared of me.”

The men gave me strength to come out to my own family. My mum cried for an entire week. The expectations of having a wife, a family — I couldn’t meet those, and my family grew up in that society where that is the only way. My parents kept me close to them; they said whatever is happening we stick together and navigate together. It planted the seed for "Thoamada II".

The Waiting Daughter tells the story of a young lesbian, Pisey, and her mother.
The Waiting Daughter tells the story of a young lesbian, Pisey, and her mother. VUTH LYNO

Were you especially affected by any of the families or stories in particular?
They are all very moving stories, but one in particular struck me; it was the most emotional experience I had during the project. It was the story of the young lesbian Pisey, and the image is called The Waiting Daughter. Her mother used to be a soldier; she challenged the stereotype of what is a “good woman” in Cambodia.

She said, when a woman joins the army in Cambodia there are so many whispers and comments — mainly from men. When she came out, her mother didn’t understand, so Pisey said to her: “Mum, I am so proud of you. You have done what so many women cannot do, you are a fighter.

“You struggled, and now it is my turn to fight and struggle — maybe not in the battlefield but with my pen and my ideas, to fight for equality.” We were all in tears. Her mother is now her biggest supporter.

Thoamada II is available from Sa Sa Bassac gallery and RoCk (092 300 006) for $15.

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