Watercolours of monks in repose, and enormous canvases of Buddha faces made of lotus flowers make up a new exhibition Fading Faces, opening at Hotel 1961 tomorrow night. Displaying the works of two returning Battambang artists, Kakkada Chhai and Phok Sopheap, the exhibition will run until April 2014.
The concept, says curator Loven Ramos, combines the artists’ two themes – Chhai’s collection is called Fading, while Phok, aka ‘Bee’ has named his Faces.
“Bee’s is all about faces, and the different phases that go with it, as a metaphor for his life and the country as well,” says Ramos. “Kakkada on the other hand is working more against faces, so he’s trying to cover the monks’ faces because he wants to take away the face of Buddhism in order to celebrate the everyday things. It’s not a celebration of Buddhism so much as a look at the little things that happen each day that give more of a human touch to the lives of the monks.”
The monks are pictured relaxing, or going about their ordinary day-to-day lives, often with the face semi or fully-covered. Many are portrayed with their backs turned or in profile, and one simply lounges in a hammock reading a book.
“It’s very everyday, the mundane things that they do but it is an illustration that they too are humans,” says Ramos. “So it’s a celebration of everyday things, even though they are living within the boundaries of a religious culture.”
The adjoining collection is a set of six paintings by Phok, although as Ramos points out they could almost be the work of three different artists, such is the variation in style and theme. The first two are his oldest works, multiple faces drawn in an almost graphic art style, all merging together. The second pair, Ghost Soldier and We Need Him, are much darker, portraying menacing skeleton-like soldiers in red and black.
“He captures a sense of fear and death,” says Ramos, “illustrated in the faces of raw violence of soldiers resonating in deep shades of red and black.”
Phok adds that the images aren’t necessarily of Khmer Rouge soldiers, but could be from any time.
“It could be now or in the past, the meaning is so deep,” he says.
The final and most recent paintings are Buds, Blossoms & Buddha and Phok’s favourite, Enlightenments and Entitlements.
In each, the face of Buddha is formed from lotus blossoms, leaves and tendrils. They are beautifully painted and in contrast to the other four, have a sense of calm and serenity about them.
In Enlightenments and Entitlements, the lotus is bursting out of a brick wall, each leaf filled with tiny delicate figures reclining in what look like fluffy white clouds. Some of them play musical instruments, others are picking flowers.
“The last two are talking about the lotus,” says Phok. “The lotus is so cheap but so precious. And it stands for Buddha, and for happiness. The one with the angels and people in the lotus leaves, it’s like the afterlife coming to relax in Buddha’s face.”
He says the brick wall imagery signifies the lotus’s ability to thrive even in the harshest of environments.
“If nobody waters the lotus or takes care of it, it still comes out of the earth or the mud,” he says. “It even grows in rubbish. The flowers survive by themselves, even if no one looks after them.”
Ramos feels the paintings are indicative of Phok’s development as an artist, having gone through the 1961 artists-in-residence program last year.
“Bee came in as an artist in residence and then we decided to absorb him fully as staff, and as someone who takes care of the gallery,” he says. “We really love the idea that these new works are fully illustrating his growth. Where Bee shines most is when he tries to find his voice and then when he exhibits, the rawness and the true passion really come out onto the canvas. There’s always a sincerity there.”