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A surreal village as societal critique

In The City Market, Hour Seyha depicts dazed peasants, corrupt policemen and thieves as animals. Photo supplied
In The City Market, Hour Seyha depicts dazed peasants, corrupt policemen and thieves as animals. Photo supplied

A surreal village as societal critique

A young Battambang artist known for his subversive work examines the feudal nature of modern Cambodian society in his fourth solo exhibition, which opens next Tuesday at Phnom Penh’s Meta House.

Hour Seyha’s Welcome to My Village is a series of 16 acrylic paintings set in an imaginary village called Sakadey – a reference to phum sakadey, or feudalism – that rearranges reality in order to critique it.

Seyha, 25, has been working on the series for nearly two years. The paintings are a sort of surrealist village art. The perspective is simplistic, the forms shaped with bright colour, and the tones dark. And the characters are plentiful.

In one painting, The City Market, there are dozens – historical and contemporary: dazed peasants, corrupt policemen, thieves (people represented as animals, Seyha explained). Another, set at a petrol station, features stone-faced attendants and a large sow attached to the car, siphoning the petrol away.

The artist replicates these stone-faced figures throughout the series, recalling ancient forms. The symbolism of the stone is quite literal: “They are human, but they think nothing,” Seyha said. They are pawns in the system.

Other works depict lords, like the god-king Jayavarman VII, who ruled over Angkor at the height of its power.

Sakadey, Seyha explained, is not rooted in a single period in time, but intended as a critique of Cambodian society through the present day. People may not hold the same titles, he contends, but the Kingdom certainly plays host to exchanges of power and fiefs – landholdings granted by those at the top.

“I imagined the village in the past, and I imagined it now,” Seyha said. “I can say that I have also experienced phum sakadey today.”

Hour Seyha’s work Emerging Conscience. Photo supplied
Hour Seyha’s work Emerging Conscience. Photo supplied

Seyha’s art is an expression of experience: he is one of four men in Battambang’s Romcheik 5 collective – a group of artists who met in Thailand as teenagers, sold by their own families and trafficked across the border to work illegally.

The group returned, and found artistic refuge in Battambang, with the sponsorship of Alain Troulet. They began living and working in a compound together in 2012. Seyha was the first to be taken under Troulet’s wing – the Frenchman supported him through his studies at the contemporary art school Phare Ponleu Selpak.

His style – always distinctive, according to Troulet – becomes more politically symbolic in this latest show. But the inspiration seems to be wholly his own.

“Seyha has a very specific and personal style,” Troulet said this week. “Even me – I tried to find out his connections to [other] art. I did not get a clue.”

Ultimately, Seyha’s Sakadey is not all lords and vassals. Emerging Conscience depicts a figure bucking the feudal system: moss and flowers fall away from its face as its large eyes – gazing beyond the viewer – seem to grow brighter on the canvas.

Welcome to My Village opens on Tuesday, June 14, at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, at 6pm.

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