Part of a new art exhibition at Hotel 1961 featuring male nudes can only be viewed in a private room because the gallery owner is concerned the “almost very homoerotic” paintings may be too provocative.
The exhibition, titled Embody, is by young Khmer artist Chhai Kakkada, and celebrates the Khmer male form, from buff young models to pot-bellied older men.
The simple yet beautifully-drawn images are produced with pen and ink. In the work shown in the main room, each subject wears a kroma, and to echo this theme, a colourful matching kroma has been draped over each picture frame.
But venture further into a small room at the back and you’ll find Chhai’s collection of full-frontal male nudes. Aware of offending peoples’ sensibilities, curator Loven Ramos took the decision to display these in a private room so that those who wanted to could “further explore his work.”
He adds “We are trying to lift the veil a little bit. In many ways we’re still getting into uncharted waters.”
Chhai explains the nude pictures are hidden away otherwise, “In Cambodia maybe some people would see it the wrong way… it could be bad for me and the gallery.”
Ramos echoes this sentiment, recalling the Japanese photographer who was arrested at 2010’s Angkor Photo Festival and charged with “producing pornography” after photographing a married couple inside a home.
He adds, “The lines are so blurry with this and that. One day they would think, ‘This is pornography, oh this is not art. This is very offensive to our culture.’ So that’s why I wanted to be more vocal and more open about it but I wanted to be a little bit on the safe side by taking it into a more private room.”
And how has the work been received so far? Ironically, Ramos says the people who have refrained from viewing the private collection have been westerners. The Khmer audience has been more receptive.
“So far the people who went into that room were already very open about these things and were very accepting… The majority of the Khmer audiences who came in were more curious!”
It is a surprisingly risqué collection for the shy, new artist. Softly-spoken Chhai tells me at first he copied male portrait images from the internet. After mutual friends introduced him to Ramos, the gallery owner championed his work and encouraged him to use real Khmer models.
Ramos says, “He had a substantial amount of work but he was using foreign models from the internet. So I said, why don’t you don’t try to interact with people in your community? Why don’t you start sketching them and be proud of your roots?
“I told him, ‘Look into your backyard and be more original, get more inspiration from this.’ But it was because of the stigma that not many men would do that, bare themselves for him.”
And gradually, some of Chhai’s friends, men training for the Water Festival boat races, agreed to model wearing traditional kromas round their waists.
So where did this quiet, retiring artist come from? Battambang-born Chhai started out helping his uncle paint pictures for tourists in Phnom Penh. His uncle, recognising Chaii’s innate talent, encouraged him to go to the Royal University of Fine Arts, which he duly did.
Ramos says, “He actually has a whole lot of talent, but he was never able to use it to its full potential because he had to find work. He got fed up doing the same things, doing Angkor Wat 20,000 times and doing an Apsara carving a couple of times a day. So he moved to Banteay Meanchey, and he’s been teaching art and English there ever since.
“He just used his proficiency in art as a hobby. He turned it into a hobby!” Ramos adds incredulously. “I saw the passion in his work. He just loves the male forms, he loves drawing them, sketching them and he feels fulfilled with it.”
With Ramos’s encouragement Chhai began to sketch portraits again, but using Khmer subjects.
Chhai’s inspiration comes from when he was studying human anatomy at university. According to Ramos, he would imagine the bodies of the people who built Angkor. “It was hard work so they would have had beautiful forms: hard workers, labourers.”
Ramos says he has really seen Chhai develop, both in talent and in confidence. “He was really timid at first. But he’s becoming bolder about the voice that he wants to speak.”
But is Cambodia ready for this kind of art?
Ramos thinks it is. “The country is ready, but it all comes down to an individual perception. Because there are some Khmers who came in here – even the staff – and were like, ‘oh ok it’s just normal,’ but some of them were (giggles behind his hand).
“But those who are more mature were like, ‘oh wow I love your shading.’ Because I want them also to take themselves out of the sexual connotations of the drawings, but rather to the physicality of the form and the way Kakkada painted them.”
And Ramos’s favourite works? “The ones with the boatmen. They are just so candid. Some of them have bigger, rounder stomachs. It’s good because it celebrates everything. Some of them are old, they’re real bodies. They’re not all perfect. Some of the pictures Kakkada did of Khmer men are almost very homoerotic but some of them, the ones I like the most, are the real people.”