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Bringing a lithograph studio to life

Rathna, a piece from Mexican artist Fernando Aceves Humana’s new exhibition Travel Diary, opening tonight at Meta House.
Rathna, a piece from Mexican artist Fernando Aceves Humana’s new exhibition Travel Diary, opening tonight at Meta House. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Bringing a lithograph studio to life

When Fernando Aceves Humana, 48, first left Mexico a decade ago to come to live and work in Southeast Asia, the move was to overcome his shyness about his art, and to be able to set up and paint anywhere, at any moment, without reservation. Tonight, a collection of his works will be on display at Meta House, his first exhibition in Cambodia.

“It’s a special moment when you travel and you don’t know the language and you depend on the gentleness of the local people,” he told The Post yesterday afternoon at the lithography studio within Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts.

He set up the studio in 2011 with the help of fellow artists back home in Oaxaca, in collaboration with the university. In part thanks to them, lithography work now counts towards completing a Fine Arts degree and is vying to be a full-fledged part of the curriculum.

Lithography, literally “stone-drawing”, is a printing process that uses varying techniques with stone or metal plates that have been etched in such a way to guide ink to desired areas.

Humana fell in love with the art-form in Italy over the course of his two years living there. His first stop in Southeast Asia was Laos, where for three months he taught at an art school in Vientiane. But soon Cambodia’s lifestyle and culture drew him in.

“I came to teach etching, and a friend showed me Meta House when I visited Cambodia, and I fell in love with the country,” he said.

A few years later, Humana was in talks with the university to bring the first – at least since the Khmer Rouge – lithography press to Cambodia.

His motivations were based in Mexico’s art history, where lithography became a highly popular medium for artists following a devastating civil war. In bringing printing to Cambodia, Humana saw a parallel, and a chance to provide a medium for the expression of a new national identity.

“Printmaking helped Mexico after the revolution, the civil war, that killed 2 million people,” he said.

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Fernando Aceves Humana with one of two lithography presses at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

In 2011, with nominal support from RUFA and while dipping into his own and friends’ savings – to the tune of $32,000 in the past seven years – he brought the first copperplate lithograph to Cambodia. In 2013, a stone-plated lithograph followed.

Working with RUFA’s Chang Vitharin, who now directs the lithography studio, Humana oversaw the certification of some 70 students in the art-form. A grant from Mexico’s development agency also gave two of his students the opportunity to study art in Mexico for three months, and for Vitharin to teach the history of Khmer art.

Among artists to have practised in his studio, many are well known, including Sopheap Pich, Neak Sophal, Kong Vollak and Vann Nath before he passed away.

“It’s quite nice to be a witness to the path of the students and the young artists because in the end those guys, along with the folk arts, will be the identity of the country,” Humana said.

So a decade after his first visit to the Kingdom, Humana has left his mark, and he’s worked up the will to show the paintings he’s done while travelling the region – where his students can see them.

“For me, it’s moving because I didn’t want to show [my work] or influence my students. I prefer to show the masters of the history of art,” he said.

Travel Diary opens tonight at 6pm at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard and runs through March 9. Free entry.

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