As Cambodia wrestles with an intense transition - from the traditional and traumatized
to the contemporary-some individuals are caught in the cross fire.
Enter Oeur Sokuntevy. The 23-year-old painter could be seen as a cultural hero: searching
for a new vision of a recently decimated culture, and fighting against rigid and
Along the way, she's shed traditional Cambodian expectations and been alientated
by her family and friends.
Sokuntevy's journey from provincial art school to Phnom Penh galleries has been a
striking metamorphasis. Her first exhibition, at Phnom Penh's Java Gallery in December
2006, featured traditional images of Angkor depicted on coffee-stained paper. But
her second exhibition "Free and Easy," which opened at the Salt Lounge
on May 26, is challenging Cambodian society's status quo head on-it's subject is
naked homosexual men.
"In Cambodia no one knows about men with men, they think it's dirty," said
Sokuntevy. "I was shocked when I first saw them too, but I don't think they're
wrong, because they can also love each other."
Sokuntevy's show will run six weeks. She believes it's the first art exhibition held
at a gay bar in Cambodia. The theme is one even some male artists find taboo.
"I don't think anyone is doing anything like this," said Chath Piersath,
Khmer-American gay artist.
"Cambodian people don't paint nudes, even [leading Khmer artist] Pich Sopheap
doesn't go there," said Chath.
Her paintings present an extreme range of homosexual love- from the tender to the
"She's just throwing herself into the jungle and seeing what happens,"
said Sopheap, director of Sala Arts. "Any artist needs to be taking risks, but
I wonder where she'll show this work."
According to Sopheap, Sokuntevy is the only local artist attempting to depict homosexual
themes so openly.
"Homosexuality is a fascination-a kind of awe-for her. She was completely shaken
by it," Sopheap said. "She thought, 'They're doing it in public, so why
Avant-garde gay artist, Leang Seckon, widely held as a founder of Cambodia's fledgling
contemporary art scene, has reservations about being too explicit with the naked
human body. His nudes are depicted more subtly than Sokuntevy's.
"I have seen some naked men in Khmer painting, but not like Tevy's," said
Seckon. "This is strong - like Europe. Here the government doesn't allow sexy
bodies on stage. I am always very open, but in Cambodia we have our own culture.
We have to go modern, but in a Cambodian way."
Seckon is surprised at Sokuntevy's courage. "In Cambodia, when a girl paints
she chooses nice things - like flowers, gods or the Ramayana," he said. Sokuntevy
was discovered last year while still at Battambang's Phare Punleu Selpak arts school
by Java Gallery owner Dana Langlois. Sokuntevy was young and inexperienced, but Langlois
was won over by the power and personality of her work.
"Tevy deciding to come to Phnom Penh is almost a coming of an age," said
Langlois. "She hasn't gone deep enough. She's trying to find an identity as
an artist, [but] there's always the risk that one does this sort of thing for shock
Her family took her out of arts school at the beginning of 2006. For most of the
year she painted in secret. What art her family found, was thrown away.
"My parents told me not to believe Dana and come here for the exhibition. They
kept my ID and my passport," said Sokuntevy.
"They all wanted me to be a nice woman - to get married, to be good at cooking.
I don't like people telling me what to do - when I want to cook I will cook, when
I want to paint, I will paint."
With virtually no money Sokuntevy ran away from home for the Java Gallery exhibition.
"I didn't know what I was doing and I was scared, but I couldn't stay at home
- my life was not there," she said. "In fact, my family loves me. But in
Cambodia artists are no good. 'I never saw an artist who was rich,' my father used
to tell me. But I want them to understand: money does not make me happy."
With nowhere to go when she came to Phnom Penh, Sokuntevy was taken in as an Artist
in Residence at Meta House Art Center. She receives free board and interacts with
other international and local artists.
"Friends and colleagues tell me it's still a problem exhibiting such things,"
said Nico Mesterharm, director of Meta House . "Things we do here are monitored
by the government. I have no problem showing art about gay people, as long as she's
not just copying porno movies. Her work is about passion and love, rather than sex,
but it's still a sensitive issue-even though the [retired] King has pledged for gay
Sokuntevy says her next project will be painting Cambodia's female prostitutes.
"She's brave, especially because she's a young girl, but if she's too explicit
she will run into problems. Is this just an angry young girl?" said Mesterharm.
This "enfante terrible,"has drifted away from old friends who've struggled
to understand her.
"I don't know any others who have run away from their families like this,"
Sokuntevy said. "I am lonely doing it this way. If I fail I will be ashamed
to go back home."But she has received support from top Cambodian artists.
"I tell Tevy to do whatever she needs to do to explore this crazy world,"
wrote Chath by email from the US. "She will be ostracized and criticized, but
who cares. It starts with someone."
But Sokuntevy has never had Chath's experiences abroad. Her journey to the boundaries
of family, sexuality and art in a traditional society has been a lonely one. "I
think she is very strong girl, because her parents have never accepted her being
an artist," said Srey Bandol, her former teacher. " I think she will be
a great Cambodian artist."
Sokuntevy listens closely to her older mentors, but explains: "If I want to
do something, I do it. I don't care what people think."