Up-and-coming Cambodian conceptual photographer Neak Sophal’s new exhibition, Flower, is quietly subversive as it challenges traditional notions of female beauty.
The series, which was the product of six months work, is based on a Khmer saying that compares women to white paper and men to gold. If gold were dropped in the mud, the saying goes, it could be polished and cleaned and will never tarnish.
White paper, meanwhile, gets permanently stained and, once considered dirty, no longer has value. The proverb is a not-so-subtle reminder of the need for women to behave themselves sexually, or else they “lose their value”.
“If you are virginal, you are a valued woman. If you don’t have it, you are not a good woman . . . For me, it is an unacceptable comparison, because women and men are human and we live together,” she says.
Gender studies has long been a subject of interest for the 28-year-old Royal University of Fine Arts graphic design graduate. Her distinctive conceptual style results in work that often serves as social commentary, highlighting what she sees as invisible social issues in Cambodian culture.
She won the Photo Prize at the Angkor Photo Festival in 2013 with her exhibition The Hang On, featuring subjects from all walks of life in Cambodia with their faces obscured by objects, usually related to their jobs, which have overtaken their identity.
In Sophal’s images, the subjects are framed by flowers a motif inspired by the frequent comparisons in songs, movies and stories of women to flowers. She then drops paint on the photograph to produce her final product, to prove that stains do not always have to be dirty and can be an element of beauty itself.
It is as much a message to her models, most of whom are her family and friends, as to her viewers. By having them model bare-faced, she wants them to embrace their own appearance without makeup, and appreciate their own natural beauty.
Sophal gave the models the freedom to choose the variety of flowers to be photographed with. If it could not be readily sourced, the models were asked to pick a colour of their choice. The result is portraits that reveal not only the models’ beauty but also their individual tastes and quirks.
“One model likes broccoli. It was very specific, and so strange for me when I put it. She said she liked it because it is not just a flower, but we can also eat it,” she says.
By juxtaposing the beauty of her subjects and flowers, she wants her viewers to question how they see and value the beauty of women. A woman’s beauty, Sophal is trying to say, is not fleeting like that of a flower’s. Though beautiful at the beginning, “after one week it [a cut flower] is just a dead flower and people don’t want to see it anymore and just throw it away.”
Her work is also a wider statement on the gender inequality problem in Cambodia. “People don’t see it as a problem, but it is, and it is getting bigger and bigger. We say it is OK, but it is not OK. It is hard to see and it is hard to change.”
Neak Sophal’s Flower opens at Java Café and Gallery at 6:30pm on Tuesday, May 9. The exhibition, which will be displayed on the second floor of the café, runs through June 25.