SIX years after being abandoned by his mother and forced to beg for food on the streets, 19-year-old Siem Reap high school student Chhoem Hay is on the cusp of launching his artistic career, with an exhibition at the Yokohamasi Nanak Gallery in Tokyo set to open in October.
Featuring paintings depicting Cambodian temples and scenes from the Khmer Rouge period, Chhoem Hay’s show is a chance for Japanese art lovers to get a taste of his work, said Tomoko Kasahara, director of Siem Reap’s Small Art School who arranged the event.
She said: “Chhoem is turning into a highly developed artist. He is making highly original works of great quality and is one of the most promising students at the school. I’m proud to take his paintings to Japan.”
Chhoem Hay’s series of 10 paintings will also include some works that depict life inside Tuol Sleng prison which were shown as part of an exhibition at the Victoria Angkor Hotel this February. Also included are some newer pieces, says Tomoko Kasahara, who is in talks to arrange a second exhibition of Chhoem Hay’s work at Le Méridien Angkor Hotel later this year.
Chhoem Hay told 7Days he started painting as a means of survival, selling charcoal drawings and watercolour paintings of temples to tourists at various markets in Siem Reap after his mother abandoned him at age 13.
He said: “Before I started to draw and paint, I lived as a beggar by the road. I had nothing to eat besides what was in rubbish bins. Sometimes friends would give me money to buy supplies and I would paint with those. I would go to the markets and Pub Street and try to sell pictures for around five dollars each and managed to make a living through this.
“This period of my life is what my recent paintings are about. I would like to throw out the suffering of my life by painting.”
After six years of a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets, Chhoem Hay made contact with the Small Art School and enrolled as a student, hoping to improve his technique.
And even though art supplies are now affordable for him, he says he still occasionally sketches with charcoal and pencils as a reminder of how far he’s come.
“Drawing with pencil is my favourite feeling. Even though I really love using natural colours I still do it because sketching always reminds me of a time when I lived in difficult circumstances,” he said.
According to Tomoko Kasahara, Chhoem Hay’s recent works have focused on darker scenes of poverty in Cambodia, as well as life during the Pol Pot era, compared to his early tourist paintings of sunsets and majestic temples.
Another change has been in the artist’s adoption of what he calls a “raised layer” technique, which involves sticking a mosaic of individually painted squares onto a larger canvas, creating a finished product that seems to jump out at the viewer.
“I got this idea from a job I had painting motorcycle logos which were raised pieces of plastic you stuck on the side of the bike. When you do it on canvas it looks like the painting is rising out of the paper. Although people say that professional artists should paint things only as they see them, I like presenting paintings in unusual ways so it looks strange and attractive.”
Although excited about his first overseas exhibition, Chhoem Hay says he is busy teaching an art class once a week with Tomoko Kasahara for children living in Banteay Srei village.
“I really enjoy teaching them and am proud to show them how to paint. I want them to develop the same skills I did if they want to pursue painting as a career.”