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Paintings present an outsider's take on Cambodia

Bokator Twins, featuring martial artist sisters Phany and Sophanin, is the feature painting at the exhibition. Photo supplied
Bokator Twins, featuring martial artist sisters Phany and Sophanin, is the feature painting at the exhibition. Photo supplied

Paintings present an outsider's take on Cambodia

Painter Julia Haw is unequivocal about her new exhibition: “This is the strongest body of work I’ve made,” she said Wednesday, just before bringing her collection of paintings from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

Haw grew up on a farm in Davison, Michigan, but after years in Chicago resettled recently in New York City. Her connection with Cambodia began with a college course on Southeast Asian art. In that class, she studied the temples of Angkor Wat and thought to herself “one day I will go there”. That day came in 2015, and not far from the temples –at a restaurant along the river in Siem Reap –she had a chance encounter with Bill Gentry, who runs an arts NGO called Colors of Cambodia. The organisation needed volunteer teachers so Haw decided to get involved.

While teaching arts courses to local students, she planted the seeds for her exhibition opening in Phnom Penh on Saturday after a run in Siem Reap, called “Same, Same but Different”. She set to work on a series of paintings approaching Cambodia from a foreigner’s perspective. The theme is both difference and similarity – exploring the commonalities between Cambodia and the West as well as the massive cultural divides.

“It’s a very delicate balance coming to Cambodia. You don’t want to blaspheme or exploit the culture,” Haw explains.

Painter Julia Haw, whose exhibition Same Same, But Different opens on Saturday.
Painter Julia Haw, whose exhibition Same Same, But Different opens on Saturday.

While in Siem Reap, Haw gathered “evidence” for the show, compiling images in her head of what she wanted to paint in New York City. The result is a series of strikingly realistic images from daily life in Cambodia, often incorporating humour and an almost Pop Art approach documenting pedestrian objects.

“I focus on the seemingly mundane aspects in a culture that are laced with undertones of political and social themes,” she said.

One of the series’ more comical paintings, called “Ass prayer”, is of a “bum gun” against orange tile – a lighthearted celebration of a concept foreign to most Americans. Another piece shows the entrance to a dentist office in which a Western woman’s sparkling smile is plastered as advertising across the door, with an implanted gemstone, or ‘skyce’, trendy in Cambodia but not in the US.

But the show’s most striking painting is called “Bokator twins”, of two young Khmer sisters – Phany and Sophanin –who secretly practice the ancient martial art of L’Bokator despite their parents’ disapproval. In the image, they are crouched in identical positions in l’Bokator gear, eyes locked on the viewer, with their outstretched hands giving the impression they are moving out of the canvas.

“This was specifically the feature piece, highlighting feminism, and the general oppression of women’s voices because that’s also occurring in America,” Haw says. “At first their parents refused that they be artists. They’re 30 years old and they’re still hiding things from their parents.”

While Haw will be returning to New York City after the exhibition, she has hopes that her Cambodia collection will also be shown at a gallery there. A newcomer to NYC’s competitive arts scene, it would be her Big Apple debut.

“For all intents and purposes New York is very new to my work. Weirdly I could possibly have a way into the city by way of Asia,” she said. “I just feel like I’ve followed my gut. I just really believe in Cambodia.”

Same Same, But Different will open on Saturday evening from 6pm-11pm at Space Four Zero Gallery’s new location at 30E0 Street 240, down the the 240 1/2 alley. It is free and open to all, with snacks provided by Fat Passion. The exhibition will run until February 26.

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