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Singaporean art gallery is spotlighting Khmer artist in exhibition

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Gallery patrons view The Tailors and the Mannequins: Chen Cheng Mei and You Khin exhibition in Singapore. SUPPLIED

Singaporean art gallery is spotlighting Khmer artist in exhibition

The works of a Cambodian artist and architect whose journey in life took him to such far-flung locations as Sudan, Ivory Coast, Qatar and the UK will be on display in a Singaporean gallery until April of next year.

For the exhibition – titled The Tailors and the Mannequins – the Cambodian artist You Khin will be paired with Singaporean artist Chen Cheng Mei. Both artists are now deceased – Khin passed away in Thailand in 2009 at the age of 62 and Chen passed away in 2020 at the age of 93.

“You Khin is little-known in Cambodia despite his successful art career overseas and appreciation for Chen’s work mostly revolves around her time with the Ten Men Art Group where her male counterparts received more recognition. Her later solo travels are underappreciated,” said Roger Nelson, curator of National Gallery Singapore.

The show is sponsored by National Gallery Singapore and takes place at Dalam Southeast Asia in the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery. This will be the debut show for the Dalam Southeaset Asia space and the first of four rotating small-format exhibitions that will be displayed there for approximately six months each until 2023.

National Gallery Singapore’s press release states that the goal of the exhibition series is to take visitors on a journey into emerging perspectives that feature lesser known artists from the region and innovative curatorial approaches in the presentation of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art.

“Dalam Southeast Asia – designed as a small format exhibition space – enables the public to gain an ‘inside look’ into fresh curatorial approaches against the backdrop of key masterpieces in Singapore’s National Collection,” according to the gallery’s press statement.

A majority of the artworks in the Dalam Southeast Asia exhibitions will be drawn from Singapore’s National Collection as well – including many never-before-seen works and recent acquisitions or donations.

“Dalam Southeast Asia marks a significant turning point in the Gallery’s curatorial efforts to inspire dialogues around the region’s modern and contemporary art.

“In our mission to become a museum that is inclusive in our selection and presentation of artists and their works, we are launching our first-ever project space that debuts new artistic and curatorial perspectives in an attempt to expand and engage with the very narratives the Gallery set up in Between Declarations and Dreams.

“We encourage visitors to step inside the worlds and works of underexplored Southeast Asian artists, to appreciate the local and regional artistic viewpoints and practices that make up Southeast Asia’s diverse arts landscape,” said Dr Eugene Tan, director of National Gallery Singapore.

The title of the show is derived from one of Khin’s three pieces in the exhibition – an oil painting on canvas done in 1981 that features a tailor cutting fabric while another one is sits next to two colorful mannequins sewing.

“What are these two tailors thinking of as they sew? We don’t know: the artist has kept their inner lives opaque, hidden from view. Their workshop is sparse, and the tailors keep their eyes averted, engrossed in labour. This painting was made while the artist You Khin lived and worked in Ivory Coast in West Africa,” says the gallery’s description.

Chen and Khin were paired for the first show due to various parallels between them like similar backgrounds in their art education and both of them spent a long time overseas to develop their personal styles.

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Chen Cheng Mei was a Singaporean artist who also travelled the world painting what she saw, though she did so by choice. Photo supplied

“You Khin and Chen Cheng Mei were selected to be paired together for several seasons, including similar subject matters in their artworks and their extensive art travels to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as well as other places,” said Nelson.

Both artists also resisted the conventional expectations for their gender and both displayed an early interest in Khmer heritage.

“For instance, this was evidenced in Chen’s painting Angkor Wat Detail II, which was inspired by Cambodia’s celebrated pre-modern temples, and in the photographs of You Khin’s early works depicting similar subject matter, made in Phnom Penh a few years later,” said Nelson.

Many of their artworks depict people and places that they encountered very far from their homelands – such as the women doing laundry that Chen sketched in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border or the bakers selling bread near Khin’s home in Qatar, according to National Gallery Singapore.

You Khin was born in 1947 in a village along the Mekong River. He was sent to live with his uncle and pursue his studies at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts and he eventually focused on interior architecture as a career.

Khin participated in various exhibitions in Phnom Penh over the years, though unfortunately most of his early works were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide.

During the civil war in 1973 he left for France to study in Marseilles at the Luminy School of Fine Arts and – little did he know – but three decades would pass before he was able to return to his homeland.

Khin also lived in Sudan and the Ivory Coast, actively painting and holding solo exhibitions in both countries before moving to Qatar for nearly 20 years up until 1999.

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Cambodian artist and architect You Khin spent more than 30 years living abroad after fleeing the civil war in 1973. Photo supplied

While Khin worked as an interior architect in Doha he continued to exhibit his artwork, which attracted media attention and praise from critics in the Middle-East. Eventually, Khin found himself longing for home and he returned to Cambodia in 2004 after an absence of 30 years.

Khin’s work was celebrated in an exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh in June of 2009 and sadly – just two months later in August of that year – he passed away in a Thai hospital from lung cancer at the age of 62.

By that point he was starting to be recognised by critics and academics as a key figure in Cambodian art history whose years of wandering the globe without a fixed home and painting what he saw were in some ways representative of the Cambodian diaspora experience lived by thousands of Cambodian immigrants and refugees who managed to escape Pol Pot’s regime and had no choice but to live in prolonged exile thereafter.

Born in 1927, Singaporean artist Chen was known for her vivid coloured oil paintings and technically accomplished prints. One of her four artworks on display is the Sri Lankan Market Scene from 1975 which she painted during one of several trips she made there.

Though she lived and worked in Singapore – graduating from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1954 – Chen also travelled extensively in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere. Her journeys inspired a planetary consciousness and international outlook that is reflected in her artwork and she is one of only a small number of Southeast Asian artists whose work engaged with Africa and South Asia during the decades immediately following decolonisation.

“Following The Tailors and the Mannequins, Dalam Southeast Asia will be presenting its second exhibition – Familiar Others: Emiria Sunassa, Eduardo Masferré and Yeh Chi Wei (1940s – 1970s) – which focuses on three more lesser-known artists who hailed from different parts of Southeast Asia,” said Nelson.

Future exhibitions at Dalam Southeast Asia will continue to spotlight Southeast Asian artists with a focus on pioneering studies of lesser-known artists from the region, according to Nelson.

The Tailors and the Mannequins exhibition will run from October 29 to April 10, 2022, at the Dalam Southeast Asia gallery space in Singapore.

For more information, check out National Gallery Singapore’s website: nationalgallery.sg

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