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The man behind the masks: the mutable art of Khvay

For Rubber Man, the artist poured rubber sap over his body as a critique of deforestation.
For Rubber Man, the artist poured rubber sap over his body as a critique of deforestation. Photo by Khvay Samnang

The man behind the masks: the mutable art of Khvay

The photographer, videographer and sculptor first won fans with striking self-portraits. Now a high-profile awards nod has solidified his standing as a multi-talented visual artist worth watching

In 2011, Khvay Samnang solidified his reputation as one of Cambodia’s leading visual arts talents with a striking series of self portraits. Untitled was composed of photos and videos of the artist pouring sand over his head while submerged in the murky waters of Boeung Kak Lake – images taken in the run-up to the filling in of the land by developers. The contentious politics of the situation meant that it was a hard shoot to pull off.

A photograph from the artist’s White Building series Human Nature.
A photograph from the artist’s White Building series Human Nature. Photo by Khvay Samnang

Samnang could only carry minimal equipment with him, and to avoid guard patrols, he worked during the midday lunch break. The sun was directly overhead and produced a harsh, bright light that few photographers would choose.

The resulting images, along with other recent series of work by the artist, have secured him a place on the shortlist for the prestigious Prudential Eye Awards. The ceremony, which takes place this Monday at the Art Science Museum in Singapore, will award prizes worth $20,000 to artists across six categories: digital, drawing, installation, photography, painting and sculpture. Samnang is a finalist in the photography category alongside Seung Hee Hong from South Korea and the Singaporean photographer Sherman Ong.

Niru Ratnam, director of the Prudential Eye Programme, said that Samnang had been an exciting discovery for the judges compiling the shortlist. “I think, particularly outside Asia, we tend to associate Cambodia with a fantastic cultural heritage, but I’m not sure how much awareness there is of Cambodia’s contemporary scene,” he said.

“The interesting thing about [Samnang’s] work is that while it’s based in political and social debate, it has also got this wonderful aesthetic. It’s not purely a documentary about social or political problems.” Ratnam also praised Samnang’s multidisciplinary approach. “He’s fascinating because he goes from sculpture, to installation, to photography.”

The artist Khvay Samnang, who studied at RUFA.
The artist Khvay Samnang, who studied at RUFA. Charlotte Pert

The inventive qualities that Ratnam praises were not always present in Samnang’s work. As a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, he majored in painting, but was unaware of the expressive potential of the medium. “The [teachers at RUFA] didn’t often say ‘Why did you draw this?’” he explains. “They just thought about nice colours, nice composition and a nice topic – like a fisherman or something.”

It was the same with photography: to pay for his studies, he worked as an assistant to a wedding photographer. “They were always shot very commercially, every [photo] is in the same style and against the same background,” he recalls.

But after taking classes with French photographer Stephane Janin and participating in a series of workshops with other young artists in 2006 and 2007, Samnang’s work changed. He returned to his part-time job with a fresh perspective, using his spare time to shoot documentary-style photos that offered a new perspective on the staged wedding ceremonies. The end result became the basis for one of Samnang’s first solo shows at SaSa Bassac Gallery in 2010.

Since then, Samnang’s use of photography has become ever more creative. Last year he travelled to Ratanakkiri province, and created “Rubber Man”: a series of photos and videos of him naked, pouring rubber sap over his body to highlight the effect of deforestation. For “Newspaper Man” he stumbled blindly around the (then-filled in) Boueng Kak lake covered in newspaper pages, and for his 2011 series “Human Nature” he photographed residents of the White Building wearing strange masks.

An image from Untitled, which was taken in the Boeung Kak lake area.
An image from Untitled, which was taken in the Boeung Kak lake area. Photo by Khvay Samnang

There are unifying features among his work – photographs often focus on people, and faces are often in some way obscured. But although Samnang says that he himself has remarked on this tendency, he insists it was never intended as a signature style. He points out the “pouring” images from Ratanakkiri and Boeung Kak were live performances, and that he only realised the masking effect they produced on camera after the fact.

Samnang is unwilling to be drawn on his chances of winning the award on Monday – a victory that would put him in the running for the overall prize of a solo exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. “It’s fine if I get it or I don’t get it; I’m already in the last three,” he says.

Either way, Samnang’s currency is rising, and more nominations are likely to be on the horizon in the coming years. Whether they will be for his work as a photographer is less certain: he is working on videoing a dance performance along Phnom Penh’s river front, and has been using an ongoing residency in Berlin to research an intriguing installation that marries medieval armour with elements of Buddhist protective charms.

“It’s like my food,” he says of his eclectic tastes, pointing to the fruit shake on the table. “Sometimes I like this, but sometimes I don’t – maybe it's sour or something. So it depends on the context.”

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