Art to Think On

Romeet Contemporary Art Space’s new exhibition, “Time to Think,” is less an art show than what curator Kate O’Hara calls a “series of provocations.”

Upon entering the gallery, patrons are immediately presented with a host of interactive, experience-driven works of art—all created by young artists from Battambang. 

Artwork by surrealist painter Oeur Sokuntevy explores the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Artwork by surrealist painter Oeur Sokuntevy explores the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

A swath of red ribbon snakes through the gallery, spilling from the tip of a large, illuminated paper breast. A small blue chair, nestled in a bed of leaves, invites viewers to sit and reflect in solitude. On the wall hang two Warhol-esque paintings of a man clutching his own swollen belly; the handwritten script next to it reads, “How would it change life if men got pregnant instead of women?”

These works of art, among others in “Time to Think,” are meant to incite a dialogue. Ms. O’Hara said the exhibition revolves around dualities—blending the beautiful with the grotesque, and the abstract with the concrete. The intent is to shed fresh light on contentious issues, and to create a space in which they can be freely discussed.

“It’s about a critical immediacy,” she said. “All the artwork in this show pushes audience members to ask questions of themselves, and of the work, and to think in new ways.”

“I really hope people engage with the work in a philosophical or ideological way,” she added.

Audience participation is key for several of the exhibition’s headlining pieces—like painter Khchao Touch’s hands-on contribution, “One Minute for Yourself.” Hers is an artistically crafted “meditative experience,” Ms. O’Hara said, which invites viewers to enter a small tent in the corner of the gallery, surround themselves in Ms. Touch’s construction of nature, and engage in a little introspection.

There’s even a journal perched outside the tent for those who feel like sharing their thoughts afterward.

Ms. Touch, who has long found her muse in nature, said the piece is meant to be an oasis of calm for those looking to escape the stressors of daily life—if only for a minute. She said this is particularly important in Phnom Penh, where greenery is hard to come by and the roar of development intrudes easily on one’s sense of inner peace.

“I just want people to be able to relax and reflect, surrounded by green and by flowers,” she said.

“It’s so difficult to be alive. Life is such a big mess, and it’s hard to find a place of peace and love for yourself. But everybody needs that.”

Ms. Touch’s piece plays a crucial role in “Time to Think,” where confrontation with a host of thought-provoking issues will likely warrant a need for solo contemplation time among visitors.

Art as Social Commentary

For surrealist painter Oeur Sokuntevy, art is more than just creative expression. It’s also a way to tell stories—a mirror reflecting the state of the world.

Current affairs usually inform Ms. Sokuntevy’s paintings and sculptures. The artwork she chose to showcase in “Time to Think” is no exception.

Here, her art offers social commentary via two phantasmagoric paintings that frighten and beguile in Ms. Sokuntevy’s trademark surrealist style.

The first painting depicts a young boy torn between two metaphorical worlds, his face melting into an ethereal backdrop of crimson clouds and sinister imagery. In the second, a grim-faced mother hammers a poisonous nail into her daughter’s hamburger at the dinner table. Both speak to the struggle of Cambodian youth growing up in today’s globalized society.

Ms. Sokuntevy said the latter painting resonates with her on a personal level. She said it illustrates the struggle of young Cambodian women—herself included —to find their place in the modern world, while still respecting their family’s wishes to maintain traditional values.

It’s a delicate and elusive balancing act, she said.

“The older generation always puts this pressure on their children, to follow tradition and follow the rules,” she said. “Families especially demand this from their daughters, from young girls. But the girl in this painting, like many [Cambodian] girls, are influenced by other cultures too.”

Conceptualizations of gender, power and identity are similarly woven throughout the other featured works in “Time to Think.”
Sou Sophy’s “The Pregnant Man,” for instance, boldly upends traditional gender binaries by asking viewers to imagine a world where men, not women, are the designated caregivers.

Her contribution is composed of three parts: two lifelike paintings of a pregnant man, a list of accompanying questions directed at male members of the audience, and a massive sandbag that visitors can try on to mimic the feeling of being pregnant.

Ms. Sophy said the piece caused quite a commotion at its first unveiling in Battambang. She said it made many men so uncomfortable that they grew angry, voiced their disapproval and walked out of the gallery.

But that was what she was hoping for.

“I wanted to surprise and awaken the men [in the audience],” she said. “I wanted them to ask themselves: Why would someone create this?”

“Time to Think” also features two mixed-medium installations that address gender issues in a less openly controversial way.

On one side of the gallery, Tes Vannorng’s mesh, chain and woven basket abstraction of a Khmer woman pays homage to the quiet resilience and inner strength of women in Cambodia.

Across the room, a massive paper and fabric sculpture is artist Linda Koeut’s ode to “the power of Mom.” The piece, which is crafted in the image of a woman’s bosom (complete with metaphorical breast milk in a bright shade of red—the color of strife, according to Ms. Koeut), symbolizes the hard work and sacrifices endured by mothers everywhere for the sake of their children.

Ms. Koeut said the sculpture was inspired by her own mom, who worked tirelessly to feed, clothe and raise her and her seven siblings.

“Growing up, I saw my mother through really hard times,” she said. “My family, we are not rich. But my mom still struggled to give us everything.”

Not a “Women’s Show”

It’s worth mentioning that all seven of the artists showcased in “Time to Think” are women. But that’s something Kate O’Hara wants to downplay, as she refuses to promote the exhibition as a “women’s show.”

“I don’t want to marginalize the work of an artist who happens to be a woman,” she said. “If an exhibition has all male artists in it, it’s just called an exhibition. But if it features all women, somehow it’s a “women’s exhibition.” Why is that?”

Ms. O’Hara said there are just as many female as there are male artists in Cambodia. Most of the artists featured in “Time to Think” agreed, saying women aren’t openly discriminated against in the arts because of their gender. Nor are they wanting for exposure when compared with their male counterparts.

But gallery assistant Sao Sreymao said an insidious double standard still exists in the “hearts and minds” of many Cambodians.

“In the public eye, men and women are in balance,” she said. “We’re of equal value. But inside the hearts of many Khmers, it’s not the case.”
Ms. Sreymao said the proliferation of NGOs in Phnom Penh have been a huge boon to equality in the arts, and there are—on the surface—just as many chances for women to exhibit their artwork as there are for men.

The real issue, she said, lies not with opportunity but with audience reception—especially from Khmer men.

Ms. Sreymao said even the most highly educated or well-traveled Khmer men often refuse to “accept that women can be better at something other than just being inside the house, being beautiful and being good at cooking.”

“[Cambodian society] still puts women in a box,” she said. “Many [men] still think women shouldn’t be known for their ideas or minds.”
Sou Sophy agreed, saying exhibitions in Battambang that feature female artists are often met with surprise.

“In Cambodia it’s still very old-fashioned,” she said. “Women stay at home and do everything in the house. That’s what is expected.”

But according to Oeur Sokuntevy, men also feel pressure to stay away from a career in the arts. She said just as women are expected to forsake creative or professional pursuits for their homemaking duties, men are expected to be good providers—something that’s virtually impossible as an artist in Cambodia.

She said the market for art in local Cambodian communities is basically nonexistent, so selling internationally is the only way for both women and men to make it as professional artists. And that’s difficult to do.

“Look around! There are only five or six actual galleries here,” she said. “And they’re all foreign owned.”

Ms. Sokuntevy said Khmer society’s dismissive attitude toward art isn’t rooted in gender-based inequality, but an overall climate of unawareness—which she partially blames on the lack of arts education programs in public schools.

She said most Cambodians grow up without any exposure to the arts, so they never learn to appreciate it—adding that the only paintings she ever sells in Cambodia are purchased by foreigners.

“Many people don’t even understand what I mean when I say I’m an artist,” she said, smiling sadly. “It’s so important to open the children’s minds [to art] from the beginning,” she said. “Or else they grow up and don’t see any value in it.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Sokuntevy recognizes that educational reforms—especially those focusing on art appreciation—aren’t moving to the top of the government’s agenda anytime soon.

Until that day arrives, she said, Cambodian artists of both genders will have to keep fighting to stay relevant.

“It’s going to be a long time before much progress is made with this,” she said. “Development is slow and difficult…and they need to improve so many other things here, before they turn to art.”

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