The life story of artist Nou Sary is one of courage and quiet determination which, after carrying him through war and dire poverty in Cambodia, brought him back to essentials.
His first Phnom Penh exhibition since leaving to study in France in the early 2000s is about “Man and Nature”—the fact that human beings are intrinsically linked to their environment whether or not they want to admit it.
“It’s nature that gives us fruit and meat which keep us alive,” he said. “Then [at death] we melt with the earth and out of this grow plants and trees: We can’t dissociate ourselves from nature.”
Mr. Sary, who received years of art training in Cambodia and France, expresses this in his photographs and paintings by placing the human body against a plain, simple background.
In some cases, he lets vegetation take hold of the body. In his exhibition held at the Institut Francais, a couple embracing in a black-and-white photograph is shown from the back, their bodies covered with a layer of vegetation.
Another photograph shows hands positioned in a classic Khmer dance movement covered with a web of vegetal roots. These photos were done on film and the vegetation coating created through development process in the lab, Mr. Sary explained. The series earned him a bronze medal from the Societe des artistes francais, or French artists’ association.
In one of his paintings, a man is shown stretching in the position of a runner, his bare body covered with a green, marbled layer of moss against a blue-sky background similarly marbled. In another, a man stretches his leg upwards while an oversized hand seizes a sheaf of rice, this placed on a textured background of burnt-orange rice paddy.
Mr. Sary’s means of expressing “Man and Nature” extend to his mixing acrylic paint with natural pigments. In his painting of a male torso, he used, he said, “Cumin, coffee, sugared tea and pigments I found in the forest.”
The vegetation in Cambodia provides a rich palette of colors for those willing to invest the time to extract its shades as it is rather time-consuming, he noted.
His series also includes a few classic Cambodian themes such as a street noodle seller shown through a curtain of rain and a giant Buddhist-monk umbrella set among a myriad of colored dots.
Born in 1971 in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, Mr. Sary soon lost his father—a Cambodian government soldier—during the Khmer Rouge regime. Then followed years of sheer poverty in the early 1980s during which he would fish or catch snakes in the forest to help his mother feed his siblings.
In 1984, Mr. Sary decided to come to Phnom Penh on his own, hoping to get an education. “For about two years, I lived on the street selling small Cambodian cakes,” he said. In 1986, he managed to be accepted at a government orphanage where he was able to study. In 1993, he passed the entrance exam for the Royal University of Fine Arts, was admitted in 1994 and left with a diploma in 1999, working as a security guard at night and living on the university grounds during the day.
In the early 2000s, Mr. Sary took several art and photography workshops at the French Cultural Center—as the Institut Francais was called at the time—and soon obtained a French-government scholarship to attend the post-graduate arts and design school Ecole superieure d’art et design Saint-Etienne in southeastern France. He graduated in 2006, obtained a second degree in 2007, and has since exhibited in Italy, Sweden, Denmark and several times in France.
During his studies, Mr. Sary worked in restaurants. “I now have two trades in life. At night I work as a chef of Japanese cuisine and during the day I’m in the arts world,” he said.
After a decade spent in France, Mr. Sary plans to move back to Cambodia in August. “Otherwise, all the knowledge I have acquired in France will be wasted,” he said. “I must share what I have learned with the young generation.”
His exhibition at the Institut Francais runs through August.
© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.