The government has failed in recent years to take steps to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence committed during the Khmer Rouge, according to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The artist Oeur Sokuntevy can’t quite find the words to explain the meaning behind “Secrets,” her new series of paintings now being exhibited at Java Cafe. But there’s no need to use language. The strong voice of her surrealistic paintings speaks for itself. It yells.
Ms. Sokuntevy’s new works use vibrant colors and fictional characters to continue what her exhibition statement calls “an exploration of subconscious and dream imagery” that she has been engaging in throughout her career.
“Don’t we all have something we’re not telling?” she asks. Her exploration goes beyond surfaces and her definition of secret through female figures is everything but a cliche.
“I don’t know who is there,” she says. “I look to this people’s eyes. I paint what I see in Cambodian faces.”
And it all starts there.
The female figures in her paintings explore the dark side behind the smiles of an individual, but also behind an entire society.
She says that her work is also a portrayal of loneliness. “If you cry, no one will understand,” she explains. “Crying is lonely.”
Ms. Sokuntevy, originally from Battambang province, has enjoyed painting since she was a young child, but she discovered a vocation for the medium when she started to sneak out of the house to attend art classes at the arts NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, she says. While studying there, she was discovered by Dana Langlois, the founder of Java Cafe, who has worked in the Cambodian arts sector for more than 10 years.
Eventually, with the support of Ms. Langlois, the young artist left Battambang, trying to escape what she calls “the future of a typical Khmer woman who stays at home and cooks,” and headed to Phnom Penh searching for a future in art. And she found it.
“I was stuck when I was at home. I had nothing to do. I wanted something different and that pushed me to change my life,” she says. “I didn’t want to stay there and marry a man just because he had money. I wanted to see to see the world.”
Her work hasn’t been always characterized by the force of its colors. “I didn’t use these colors at school, because they are expensive. When I came to Phnom Penh, I started to experiment and tried to understand and use color.”
The inspiration behind her paintings can be traced back to the influence of artists working in the Surrealist tradition, like Salvador Dali or Frida Kahlo. But she says that she likes to find her own way of doing things.
She hesitates when asked if she likes Dali. “Yes, he’s good,” she says after a pause. “I just don’t understand his idea. He’s European. I think it’s good to be influenced by any good artist and Dali’s technique is interesting. You just need to have your own story to tell.”
Ms. Sokuntevy’s previous work has been exhibited in China, Canada, Korea, Singapore, Germany and the U.S. “I’m never stable. I’m never in one place. I go here, I go here, I go here. Just moving around.” Culture shock? “No, nothing’s strange for me.”
And what’s next after “Secrets”? “Oh, I can’t say anything,” she says laughing.
The exhibition runs through January 12.
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