A painting depicting a woman sitting nude, vulnerably poised among blossoming sunflowers is just one piece in a new exhibition entitled Nude, looking to shed light on the vulnerability and gender inequality still experienced by many Cambodian women.
The exhibition – launched on March 8, International Women’s Day, at Phnom Penh gallery The Bodleian – consists of six paintings by Cambodian artist and photographer Rena Chheang.
The exhibition’s provocative title alone would make many in socially conservative Cambodia uneasy. But Chheang urges visitors to look beyond the nude portraits and see the deeper meaning her work explores through the lives of Cambodian women.
“My paintings reflect the lives of our urban, city women in Cambodia. No matter the condition in which they are living, women have different ways of struggling towards success. They have individual paths to development and happiness."
“My canvas aims to be visual poetry. I consider my work a storytelling tool. I hope it contributes to the social and political awareness of women in our society, who struggle against many social problems from domestic abuse, unequal rights and forced labour, as well as many other things,” the 28-year-old self-taught artist tells The Post.
Chheang’s Nude exhibition is inspired by the lives of women in Cambodia’s cities; the conditions of inhabitants and the different and highly individual paths to development and happiness experienced by each woman.
Her paintings consist of both a more traditional style and abstract contemporary styles. She says it is the latter style that suits her current mood more.
“I like both styles, but I enjoy painting abstracts more. When I paint abstracts I paint with emotion and I never know how the paintings will turn out. But once they are finished, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment."
“My subjects allow me to create paintings that speak from my heart. They are inspired by love, romance and family structure; these themes echo in my artwork,” Chheang says.
The Cambodian painter and photographer established Big Eyes Creative in 2012 with the purpose of capturing more than just images, but moments that reflect memories and personalities.
She got Bachelor of communion at The Master University in California, USA. Her first painting exhibition was held in 2014, and she has held six solo exhibitions and two group exhibitions since.
Chheang’s pieces featured in Nude are up for sale, with one recently bought for $600. But Rena says that as an artist in Cambodia, she cannot depend on the sale of her paintings alone to support herself.
“I know a few people that love my paintings and have always supported my career as an artist by purchasing the artwork. But I am also a photographer. I do family portraits, couples portraits, senior portraits and wedding portraits. I’ve also started doing prints of my artwork, which helps with generating a monthly income,” she says, adding that she prints on canvas, wood, tote bags, postcards and greeting cards.
“My prints can be purchased at different venues such as Khema Laposte, Amazing Cambodia, Ginger and Grace, and Beyond Design,” she continues.
Even though she explores the serious themes of gender inequality, domestic abuse, unequal rights and forced labour, Chheang’s message for women is ultimately an empowering one.
“The main purpose of my art work is to empower women so that they can fulfil their dream of breaking the cycle, having a hopeful future, finding their personal identities within social classes and hierarchies,” she says.
Nude will run until the end of April at gallery space Chamber @ The Bodleian, located on Street 288 in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I district.