Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards




New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards

An image from Neak Sophal’s Flower series. Photo supplied
An image from Neak Sophal’s Flower series. Photo supplied

New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards

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.

The artist, Neak Sophal.
The artist, Neak Sophal. Eliah Lillis

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Without shoes or a helmet, a young cyclist steals the show

    Pech Theara gripped the curved handlebars of his rusty old bike, planted his bare feet on its pedals and stormed as fast as he could towards the finish line. The odds were against him as the 13-year-old faced off against kids with nicer bikes at

  • Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville expressway on schedule

    The construction of the more than $1.9 billion Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway has not been delayed despite the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 26 per cent of the project completed and expected to finish in about two years, according to Ministry of Public Works and Transport secretary of

  • Over 110 garment factories close

    A government official said on November 22 that at least 110 garment factories had closed in the first nine months of the year and left more than 55,000 workers without jobs – but union leaders worry those numbers could be much higher. Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training undersecretary

  • Singapore group seeks $14M in damages from PPSP over ‘breach of contract’

    Singapore-based Asiatic Group (Holdings) Ltd is seeking a minimum of $14.4 million relief from Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX)-listed Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone Plc (PPSP) for allegedly breaching a power plant joint venture (JV) agreement. Asiatic Group’s wholly-owned Colben System Pte Ltd and 95 per

  • PM vows to protect Hun family

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his fight against opposition politicians who he said intend to smash the Hun family. Without naming the politicians but apparently referring to former leaders of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen said there

  • Cambodia lauded for fight against Covid-19

    Cambodia has drawn global accolades for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a new report finding that the Kingdom has controlled the pandemic better than any other country in Asia. Dr Takeshi Kasai, director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Western Pacific region,