The canvas hanging in front of me is dominated by a human-like figure with round flower petals on its head and vines growing from its body. It extends its arms out over a blue background highlighted with a colour like that of pale clouds.
The vivid imagery and gorgeous colour palette combine together to form a stunning work of contemporary art, created right here in Cambodia.
This striking painting is by Khchao Touch, one of over two dozen artists who are showing their work at the Srey 2021 exhibition for the next 30 days or so at Meta House.
Srey 2021 is meant to be something akin to a visual conversation carried on through the photographs, paintings, installations, videos, performance and poetry from 28 artists.
Some of those 28 artists are Cambodian, while others are from abroad – but all of them are women.
“This exhibition captures the voices of selected female artists in Cambodia,” says Nicolaus Mesterharm, founder and director of Meta House.
Meta House is the German-Cambodian cultural centre. It has been enriching the Phnom Penh arts and culture scene for over a decade now by hosting art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and the occasional techno dance party.
The Srey 2021 exhibition is built around the theme of being a woman in Cambodian society in particular but that experience has much in common with the experience of being a woman anywhere else in the world, for better or worse.
“Through the style and subject matter of their art, as well as their growing commercial success, Cambodia’s female contemporary artists are challenging the traditional perception that women should be seen rarely and heard even less,” says Mesterharm.
With the title of her painting “What do I need to be me?” Khchao Touch knows she is posing a question that only she can answer, thus the title becomes more of an expression of frustration, rather than a question that she has not found the answer to.
Touch is a former student of the Phare arts organisation in Battambang. Famed for their circus performances, they also quietly run a great visual arts school and many other high quality arts programmes.
Touch has therefore had some of the best art instruction available in Cambodia, but she says that isn’t what makes her an artist as she feels that the qualities one must have to be a true artist are more intangible and personal than mastery of any techniques.
Artists have always had a reputation for eccentricity, throughout the ages and across the globe, and Touch does her best to embrace this. She tells The Post that she’d adopted a unique dress code in recent years.
“My closets used to be packed with all kinds of different clothing and outfits and I always felt I had to be fashionable and keep up-to-date by buying new stuff. But for the last two years I’ve decided to only wear the colour blue,” she says.
She feels that this makes life easier and that she saves money and time.
“From my point of view, dressing to please someone else’s eyes is exhausting and pointless. I just want my life to be simple,” says Touch.
Not coincidentally, one presumes, most of Touch’s paintings also make extensive use of roughly the same deep and rich shade of blue she’s now been wearing every day for the past two years.
The statement she seems to be making, intentionally or not, is that she’d like to merge with her artwork or become one with her paintings.
To put it another way, Touch isn’t content to merely create works of art – on some level she actually wants to be art, which is an impressive degree of dedication.
Koem Keosocheat is another artist showing her work at the exhibition who sees clothing as a powerful way for women to express things about themselves to society.
She is best-known in the Cambodian art-world for her paintings of cats but this time around she designed and made a dress to exhibit.
Keosocheat says she took a dress and added layers of detail to it in repeating patterns. In a sense, the dress is like a painted canvas and the woman’s body becomes the frame used to display the picture when it is worn.
She says that in Khmer culture, art is very important to women because mothers are the people most responsible for passing on cultural knowledge and traditions to younger generations.
“We teach our kids how to dress themselves or tie their shoes and we should think about teaching them how to create art from a young age and do it on that same fundamental level,” she says.
In addition to the ongoing visual arts exhibition there will be a poetry-reading on January 23 by Phina So, with verse written in both Khmer and English. Her programme is titled “Incomplete Women”.
Also appearing in the exhibition are two large prints by photographer Tyta Buth, also known as Tytaart.
Regarding her contribution to the exhibition, she wrote on Facebook: “These two pieces are entitled Femininity and Masculinity – they were originally supposed to be part of the Complementarity Exhibition back in September, however they were not shown at that time.”
“Now you can see their beauty in full scale [at Meta House],” she says.
Even Touch’s daughter will be exhibiting her own original art at the show – a drawing depicting girl’s dresses.
Swalo Pathna, 11-years-old and a grade 5 student, has been practicing drawing and painting with her mother. She has had some art classes at Phare and entered some art contests.
“She drew her six dresses on paper using coloured pencils,” says Touch.
Touch did not know what her daughter meant by drawing those six dresses or if she had consciously meant anything at all in specific.
She says it doesn’t really matter as long as her daughter is happy and enjoyed the time she spent drawing them.
“The real secret to art is that it isn’t the artist who gets to decide the meaning – it’s the audience, the people who look at it and see whatever they see. They make the meaning for themselves,” Touch confides.
“Srey 2021 – Art 4 Women – Women 4 Art” runs from January 20 to February 19 at Meta House. This project is supported by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
For info visit Meta House’s Facebook: @MetaHousePhnomPenh.