This month, Vuth Lyno is showing his work at the SASA Bassac gallery, a “new space for contemporary art” in Phnom Penh. Lift culture critic Ouk Elita took in his exhibit and sat down with the artist to find out what the exhibit means to the man who created it.
It was immediately obvious to those in attendance for the opening of Vuth Lyno’s exhibit Thoamada, which will be shown at SASA gallery until the end of the month, that this was not your typical Phnom Penh photo fare.
As soon as I entered the gallery I found myself encircled by massive portrait photographs hanging from the ceiling. I adjusted to the unique presentation and saw that nine different men were each wearing unique makeup and looking seriously at the camera. My eyes alone still couldn’t figure out what it all meant, but then I realised that each photo was accompanied by audio clips of the men telling their own stories of love, hate, happiness and sadness.
The creator of this exhibit, Vuth Lyno, is a 29-year-old Cambodian who, along with the other five members of an all-male artists collective that called themselves Stiev (rebel), has been at the centre of a resurgence of the arts in Phnom Penh.
For this exhibit, Vuth Lyno collaborated with his subjects, who are all self-identifying men who have sex with men (MSM), to compile anecdotes, audio recordings and create a visual aesthetic that would encourage people to confront the complexity of their identities.
I was among the first people to arrive at SASA Bassac on the opening night and the atmosphere was quiet yet calming. I began circling the portraits, taking a closer look to try to read the stories behind the masks painted on each of their faces. One of the men painted a colourful butterfly on his face that seemed to me to be very much alive.
I picked up the mp3 player placed on a pole just below the photo and began listening. He was a charming man. He talked about his life and how he grew up to learn that he was different. He talked of his first love in the same way any teenage boy would, except that his first love was a man.
One by one, I listened to other audio clips. The nine men shared a sexual preference for men, but apart from that, each story was entirely unique. So too were the paintings on each of their faces, which were meant to convey another piece of their personal narrative - their identity.
One painted their face like a yeak (giant). Another has a Cambodian flag painted across the features of his face.
People kept trickling in to the gallery, and eventually so did Vuth Lyno. Despite his hectic day, he immediately began greeting each of the guests at that evening’s event. Eventually, he even managed to sit down with me to talk about his life as an artist and how he came to be where he is today.
Vuth Lyno was born to a middle-class family, educated at a good school and he says he had a fairly easy life. He studied Information Technology at university and took a photography course at the French Cultural Centre. It was on trip to the field as a photographer that he had an epiphany.
“I was a city boy. It was when I started working that I went to communities with problems and saw many forms of difficulties... from orphans, HIV patients, to disabled people....”
These trips also led to the blossoming of Vuth Lyno’s relationship with photography, as both an art form and a way to document the world around him. His first exhibition was in 2007, and he had another one in 2008 before receiving a scholarship to enroll in an MBA in Social Science programme in Melbourne, Australia
“My time in Australia and back home gave me a break to think about what I really want to do in life,” he told me. Eventually, he decided to be a part of the change he wanted to see through his art.
Lyno took interest in the LGBT community in Cambodia and his project went from there. Starting with two men and working his way up to nine, Lyno worked closely with the group, giving them time to open up and share their experiences and feelings with each other, and eventually with the public.
“There are varieties among them and I want people to understand who they really are,” he said.
Before I left, I snuck between two of the photos that formed the circle at the centre of the exhibit so that I became the centre of the exhibit. With their giant faces looking in at me, I took the time to really look back and try to see what they wanted me to see.
Behind each and every one of them was a lifetime of stories waiting to be heard and a young man waiting to be accepted.
I walked out of the gallery that night with an understanding, and sense of caring, about a community that I had previously given little thought to.
I remembered Vuth Lyno telling me that he envisioned his art being the change he wanted to see. I was grateful to be a part of it.