Artist Reflects on Country’s Past, Present to Heal, Celebrate Cambodians

If one piece had to be picked to encapsulate the latest exhibition from artist Leang Seckon, it would be his work titled “Dead and Reborn Again.”

Last year, the head of a pre-Angkorian statue of the Hindu deity Harihara—a fusion of Vishnu and Shiva—which had been in a French museum since the late 19th century, was sent to the National Museum in Phnom Penh to be reunited with its body, found in the 20th century, and identified in the 2010s as belonging to the head.

Leang Seckon’s artwork entitled ‘Journey Crossing the Border’. (Rossi & Rossi)

“Harihara is a special god protecting the land,” Mr. Seckon said in an interview.

Having the statue’s head and body reunited was, he said, “like a butterfly born out of the worm, Cambodia coming out of darkness.” In his painting, the statue’s head floats in the clouds with its body on the left and a whole statue on the right.

This series of vast frescoes and small collages took Mr. Seckon two-and-a-half years to complete. Real and mythical people are mixed and melded, reflecting events and realities but also age-old symbols and beliefs that Cambodians may rarely discuss but which are part of their very fabric.

He produced 32 works for the new show, “When Head and Body Unite,” which goes on display at the Rossi & Rossi gallery in Hong Kong next month.

Done in his signature style, each work is multilayered. The large ones—some of which would fill a wall—are done on canvas and fabric with acrylic paint, collages and pieces of leather cut as finely as embroidery. The colors are warm and muted gold, soft blues and grays.

Smaller collages consist of layers of painted images mixed with photographs and illustrations collected over months of research. Each one speaks of a chapter of the country’s recent history. From the “Golden Era” of the refugee camps in Thailand in the 1980s, it also includes the country’s leading figures in the early 1990s such as King Norodom Sihanouk, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Artist Leang Seckon explains the meaning behind his painting ‘Gold Silt Creative Person.’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Every work carries references well-known to Cambodians and also very personal to the artist.

In “Gold Silt Creative Person,” a man stretches his arms above his head as he looks in a mirror in which his reflection shows the head of the mythical snake, naga, while his shadow is that of a man with the head of a crocodile. This work is about Mr. Seckon’s roots in Prey Veng province, he said.

“After the Khmer Rouge, I had nothing: I just had my life…. I picked rice in the field to eat and saved some to start growing rice on the land again.

“I moved my feet in the mud…. The mud from that period and also from past generations went through me, connected with my body.”

Born in 1970 in a poor family, Mr. Seckon studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in the 1990s and has become one of the country’s leading artists. His work tends to reflect Cambodia as a whole: its pain and glories, triumphs and tragedies.

Peter Sharrock, an art historian who has written extensively on Angkorian art and Buddhism, wrote that Mr. Seckon’s latest series traces Cambodia’s “brilliant and terrible” past.

“This is what affirms his status amongst today’s foremost exponents of contemporary art in Cambodia,” he said.

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