Wearing a pink hijab, Eng Aisha works away at a newly commissioned painting inside her bamboo home in Sambuor commune, on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Instead of a paint brush in her right hand, she holds a forceps, which she uses to pick up grains of rice, dyed a variety of colours. She places them on a wooden plank, smeared with homemade glue, while holding her daughter Saream – the youngest of her three children – in her left arm.
A small mistake could mean throwing away the work and starting over.
Aisha’s paintings depict a wide range of subjects, including people and the natural world – as well as Islamic symbols and Arabic script. One rice painting, called Pocahontas, shows a Native American woman with a black dove. The plank is cracked, and the painting represents “ungratefulness for mercy” on the part of European settlers.
But the main message Aisha wants to convey with her paintings is the value and importance of the country’s rice.
“Cambodia’s rice tastes really good and is the main export of the country, but its market is still small compared to that of neighbouring countries,” she says. “To give artistic meaning to our rice, I believe, will increase its value.”
The 31-year-old says she discovered the aesthetic potential in rice about nine years ago, when she was helping her mum cook num treap, a steamed snack made from sticky rice, usually served with coconut cream and sesame seeds.
“When my mother put coconut cream and sesame seeds on the black and white rice, I found them very beautiful, and wanted to turn rice into artwork,” she said.
Though she never received any official art training, Aisha was once an apprentice and assistant to a glass painter in Thailand. She says she wanted to “get out of the box” by using rice instead of water colour or acrylic paints. However, her idea did not become a reality until she divorced her Turkish husband about three years ago.
“I was handed over the custody of my three children without any child support, while I already have an old mother and almost no money,” Aisha says. “All I had were some rice paintings, which I had made for fun. I realised that I had to do something with them for my children although it was a great risk.”
Reluctantly, Aisha rented a small stall at the Siem Reap Night Market and her artwork proved successful, serving a mostly Western clientele.
In August this year, Seri Fatmawati Hambali-Yeo, a Singaporean real estate agent and art curator, came to Cambodia and encountered Aisha’s paintings. She was so mesmerised by them that she opened up Angkor Rice Art Gallery in Singapore to display and sell Aisha’s work.
“Aisha’s paintings are beautiful and very special, especially the ways she dyes the rice first and places the grains on the plank one by one,” Seri says. “This is real, unique art, which is much more than just a mere souvenir.”
Her hard work – and the meticulous process – only adds to its value, she said. “Aisha is making them every day, bearing all the hardship for her children,” she said.
Like many artists in Cambodia, Aisha has been unable to lift her family out of the daily difficulties of village life. On countless occasions, people have come to her stall to express their love for her paintings, but don’t buy them, saying that they are too expensive. The prices range from a few dollars for simple pieces to a few hundred dollars for more intricate ones.
“I cannot be angry with them, as we are in a developing country, and my painting’s price range is quite high as they are very hard to make,” Aisha says. “But I really love to see my fellow countrymen support my work, like foreigners.”
Currently, Aisha is training 14 schoolgirls in rice painting, most of whom are from poor families. They also help her in her workshop and are paid. In the future, she hopes to found a centre to teach women how to work with rice, as well as in other trades, with a focus on single and Muslim women, who she says often face discrimination in finding a job because of their faith.
“I do not only want to see rice as our staple food but also a symbol of our country,” Aisha says. “I will never achieve that if I keep this skill only to myself.”