Painter Leang Seckon is one of Cambodia’s best-known contemporary artists, with an exhibition of new work opening at Java Café next week. He first came to Phnom Penh in 1992 to enrol in a painting class at the School of Fine Arts, and has spent the past two decades making multimedia work that draws heavily on personal experience. This week, he sat down with Vandy Muong at his home studio to talk about the places that have shaped his life and art
Boeung Kak Lake
In 1992, I came to Phnom Penh without a place to sleep. My relatives were looking for people to stay at a small cottage by the lake. I told them to look after their land there, where I built a happy life. It was similar to my hometown: there was an environment with fresh air and free space for me to focus on my painting. I painted in my small house in the afternoon to earn enough money to support myself. I learned English from a foreigner there. It was a big community: I got to know rich, poor, scavengers, foreigners, drug users and others. But now, no one is there.
The Royal Palace
An American who was staying at Boeung Kak bought me painting materials and invited his friends to come watch me paint at the Royal Palace. They gave me $1 or $2 for each painting – I was so excited to do my work during that time even though it wasn’t much money. I earned $50 the first day of Water Festival and painted for three days. The Royal Palace is also where I met a tourist from Hong Kong and told her about Cambodia and asked her to see a series of my Buddha paintings. She bought my first large-scale painting for $350. Now, I go there and see young artists who learn from one another and paint along the Mekong River.
Pictured: ‘In Front of the Royal Palace’ by Leang Seckon
Java Café and Gallery
Java Café opened in 2001 with a space for foreign exhibitions and Cambodian painters who hadn’t yet been exhibited. There, I met [curator and owner] Dana Langlois, and I told her about my artwork, and she was interested in it. My artwork was focused on my experience with war, and on Buddhist concepts and materials (monk’s robes, incense, candles) – so I collected those materials and stuck them onto my paintings. Java Café was the first place I displayed these paintings – 18 of them – and I sold every one. Then, there were not many contemporary artists like there are now. I found my own inspiration.
People wonder where my paradise is? It is my own house, which has my studio and gallery. It overlooks everything: the river, the Royal Palace, the Fine Arts School, the National Museum and the park. It is the best location in the city. When I want to go to the school or the museum, I can just ride my bicycle or walk. I bought this house in 2006 – there wasn’t any reason – and moved here in 2010 when people had to leave Boueng Kak. Its interior design is fitted to me: a private space, designed for an artist. Mudrak, the private gallery downstairs, is a space for my close friends to use; sometimes I have exhibited my own work here. I don’t go out to galleries or restaurants – I invite my guests to come here and I cook.
This new trend of young people going to Koh Pich or to a bar – it is just a part of life – but they should connect their lives to cultural places, too. Visiting the National Museum to understand history is very important: it can improve people’s views. I go to the museum three days a week, and I always get a different feeling. I can smell real nature and culture. I hug the statues, and I feel like I am hugging my ancestors. People like my work because it takes imagination from a lot of things: it is culture-preserving, but it also seeks to understand other cultures.