Breaking Bread

Prom Vichet’s painting entitled “Braised Beef and Bread” depicts a table with barely touched bread, a nearly full bowl of beef stew, a plate of rice paddy herb called “ma’am” and a half-full glass of water: a typical Cambodian breakfast.

Done in soft colors that suggest all the warmth and well-being that an ample meal brings, the artist’s series currently exhibited at the InterContinental Hotel’s Insider Gallery is nonetheless called “Food Waste.”

‘Braised Beef and Bread,’ a painting by Prom Vichet
‘Braised Beef and Bread,’ a painting by Prom Vichet

All the inviting displays of food in the paintings are actually leftovers, what people abandoned when they walked away from the table.

“It’s my own suffering that prompted me to do this series,” the 59-year-old artist said. “I lived through the Pol Pot regime, a period during which I really starved as there was no food to eat.

“I’ve never forgotten that person who gave me a small piece of potato and rice one day…. So I really understand hunger.”

Today’s Cambodians seem to have adopted a culture of waste, Mr. Vichet said. They often prepare huge quantities of food for family meals or weekend gatherings, and the plentiful leftovers frequently get wasted, he lamented.

“That food would mean a great deal for a poor family,” he said. “Why not pack it and explain to people living on the street that these leftovers are actually edible, not food gone bad?”

As illustrated in his series, plates and bowls are often far from empty once meals are over.

In a work entitled “Left Rice and Salt Crabs,” for instance, shells are empty of crabmeat, but there is still is a heap of rice on the banana leaves on which the dish was served.

Executed in warm and subdued tones reflecting the quiet ease of a meal with friends or family, the 11 paintings in the series were done on canvas with a dry-brush oil paint technique. “Usually, we add gasoline or fish oil to the paint” to accentuate the shiny effect, Mr. Vichet said. But this way, the colors remain true in the light, he added.

‘Left Rice and Salt Crabs’
‘Left Rice and Salt Crabs’

Born on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Mr. Vichet was a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. From the 1980s until 1995, he taught mathematics in public primary and secondary schools. From 1995 on, he divided his time between teaching and working at the Ministry of Education’s research and pedagogy department, as well as running an NGO publishing children’s books.

Since retiring in 2013, he has been teaching art to children from poor neighborhoods through his NGO Khmer Artists for Children. He also teaches technical drawing to engineering students at private universities.

Carrying social messages through his art is not new to Mr. Vichet. In 2002, he was among the first artists to address the devastation that deforestation could cause in Cambodia.

And in a 2012 solo exhibition on Cambodia through the decades, he depicted the lure of money in modern society by showing a man with dollar signs in his eyes and a contented smile on his face, sitting at a desk with laptop and mobile phone next to pen and paper.

This time, he said, “My message is to see Cambodians who make less money start thinking about saving by preparing food based on their actual needs.” Some families spend so much on food at the start of a month that they end up throwing it out, and then have little money left for meals four weeks later, he said.

Plus, there are those who constantly splurge and throw out food they can’t consume. “I mean, they should stop the culture of wasting food,” Mr. Vichet said.

The exhibition runs through June 7.

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