When Mao Soviet married his longtime girlfriend and fellow artist Phin Sophorn in Battambang earlier this year, he thought they would be able to live together, but never paint together.
That was until he approached Siem Reap gallery owner Loven Ramos about staging an exhibition of his work at Hotel 1961. Ramos agreed – but with a catch.
“Loven said to me ‘Okay, I’ll give you an exhibition as a couple.’ I said ‘What’s a couple?’ He said, ‘It means you and Sophorn are both artists, so why not work together?’ And I was like, ‘But why work together?’ Then I thought okay I’ll try, but inside my head I was thinking ‘oh no...’”
And after months of minor arguments, make-ups, and flying paintbrushes, the result is now on display at Hotel 1961, as part of Man & Wife: an exhibition of 11 paintings by the couple, including three from Soviet, four from Sophorn, and three the pair did together.
During a walking tour of the exhibition, Soviet explained that the process of working with Sophorn was rocky at first, with their first joint painting taking over a month to complete.
“She has her own technique and style. They always say, ‘Oh when people live together their technique and style become the same.’ But we never had that, and when she and I painted together it was very difficult. For example, she always wants to have more detail on the canvas, and I would say, ‘This is not art, this is just painting. In art you need to express yourself and put the feeling in the work,’ but she would say, ‘Oh no, I need beauty, I need detail.’”
Chiming in from a nearby bench, Sophorn concurred.
“A lady always wants something that is beautiful and creative,” she said. “For me I think it looks good, but in other eyes, it doesn’t.”
Despite the arguments that went into making the paintings, they look like the product of two minds perfectly in sync, with the joint works of Mao and Sophorn showing scenes of them together during their eight year courtship, after they met as students at the Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang in 2006.
“Before we got married we lived together and people always wanted to know, ‘Hey you’re not married yet, why are you living together?’” Soviet said. “In my culture, unmarried people are not supposed to live together. We did it because we want to change Khmer culture a little bit. Before people get married they have to know each other. It’s for the good of the couple.”
After the month-long struggle to complete their first joint painting, Soviet and Sophorn sat down and decided that a more efficient way to go about the exhibition was to divide the work between them, with each artist doing a segment in their own style.
This approach yielded mixed results.
“So we got ready, we sat down together and we talked about what parts we wanted to paint, and Sophorn would say ‘Okay I’ll paint the face in my style, you do the clothes and background in your style.’ But when she paints, it’s very boring because she keeps doing more and more, and I’d go, ‘When are you finished?’ And she would say ‘Give me more time,’ and I’d say ‘okay, okay, okay.’”
“After that,” Soviet continued, “I would have finished my half, all the background, and she would say ‘Oh this colour is not good, I need more bright colours.’ And I would have to change it again. I would just think to myself ‘Oh no, oh no.’”
When Sophorn pointed out that she actually enjoyed working with her husband on the exhibition, Soviet reluctantly agreed, saying the process got easier as time wore on and the exhibition deadline approached.
Soon they’ll be working together again, during this year’s Angkor Art Explo, with the pair participating in a bike ride from Battambang to Siem Reap along with other local and international artists, something that Soviet said he is looking forward to.
“I like doing things with Sophorn, but maybe not working on the same painting. I remember when I first met her I liked her smile. Actually I really love her smile, and she smiles when she concentrates on her work. This is the first thing I loved about her. Her smile is wonderful.”