John Weeks: Artist and comics curator John Weeks first arrived in Cambodia in May 2000, curious to research Cambodian comics. In 2006, he co-founded the local NGO Our Books, which helps source and promote Khmer comic art. He also publishes a daily web comic at QuickDrawComics.net. This week John spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about some of the best artists working in his field
Phousera ‘Séra’ Ing
I had the good fortune to meet Séra during one of his many teaching stints at the French Cultural Center. Séra’s L’Eau et la Terre (Water and Earth) may well be the first proper graphic novel that dares to focus on the Khmer Rouge era. Despite the great effort that’s gone into his sublime full-colour comics, they always appear “cut from whole cloth”, zooming from geopolitical context to intimate, heartbreaking moments. Séra’s work to cultivate a new generation of artists is an inspiration. One effort worth noting in particular is The Memory Workshop, which was done in collaboration with S-21 survivor and painter Vann Nath at the Bophana Center. It speaks rather poorly of the English-language comics community that no company has stepped up to translate Séra’s vital works.
The departed and missed Svay Ken is well known for Painted Stories – a family history and homage to his departed wife, published in 2001. Since they are pictures that form a narrative, I’ve always seen his collections as comics. My favourite Svay Ken memory is of an exhibition at Java Cafe. We were watching some performance art, peeking into a crowded room. I thought, “Hmm, this might be worth a sketch,” and hunted in my pockets for pen and paper. I looked over and Svay Ken was already on the job, putting pencil to paper, nearly finished. As an artist, he painted what he knew and drew from a life richly lived – a monk as a youth, a member of Sihanouk’s ‘Chivapol’ militia ... His stuff was termed naive and it was anything but. If he’s naive then I’m far further down the scale.
Tian Veasna first came to the public eye via the French-language travel memoir Seven Months in Cambodia, a teaching collaboration in 2001. I interviewed Tian and his collaborators for The Comics Interpreter, an obscure US magazine that folded shortly thereafter. His current series [also in French], The Year of The Hare, draws on family experiences to create a portrait of the fall of Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge years. Using a fictional family’s experiences as the focus, the reader accompanies them through a vivid chronicle of the challenges “New People” faced. Cartoonists are as unique as fingerprints, and Tian’s approach is deeply personal, a reminder to us that there is no one correct way to express and examine Cambodia’s troubled past – the work is necessary but the paths are many.
Sin Yang Pirom
Sin Yang Pirom reappeared during research for the 2004 Bande Dessinee au Cambodge exhibition. During the small boom of publications during the middle to late 1980s, she produced illustrated novellas that evolved into comics. Like many of the ’80s-era creators, the majority of her work has vanished with the passage of time and needs to be addressed via interviews and archiving. As one of the few women in a male-dominated field, she developed work to her own standards on her own terms, and found a market for it.
Sao Sreymao’s comic style is characterised by a thick brush line and has a strong personal style. She’s a good example of someone contemporary, young and attempting to express her own opinion. She initially studied at the Phare art school and also under Séra. Her depictions of contemporary Cambodian life are seen in commissions, commercial publications and books. Her most recent work can be seen in illustrations for Home, with writer Andy Gray – a book critiquing the approach of local “orphanages”. It’s nice seeing her getting paid for her art.