An exhibition opening this weekend at 1961 Gallery portrays a series of Cambodian women who have inspired US artist Grace Gutekanst.
“This series is about eight badass Khmer women who are working towards their dreams through unwavering perseverance,” Gutekanst says. “Their dreams are Cambodia’s future, and I am proud to be in their presence and witness their humble tenacity.”
The exhibition, Gutekanst’s first in Cambodia and ninth in total, is titled Willpower, reflecting the drive and ambition of her eight subjects, who are depicted in oil on canvas with acrylic under-painting.
The paintings were born out of a visit she made to Siem Reap last year.
Gutekanst, for whom painting provides stress relief and an emotional outlet, says the fact that it takes time to depict a subject on canvas means she cannot simply pack up and move; she needs to settle and spend time with the person portrayed in order to be sufficiently involved.
Gutekanst wants this series to be a vehicle to show the world that Cambodia and its people are much more than a nation struggling to recover from the Khmer Rouge, adding that she has had enough of the “constant influx of poverty-porn art in Cambodia”.
The focus of many exhibitions on portraying people’s struggles – challenges that she agrees remain relevant – has become repetitive, she says, and risks destroying hope by holding up a mirror to only one aspect of life.
“There’s so much more to it,” she says, adding that concentrating on the negative provides little chance to tell stories of hope, strength and progress. Her subjects, Gutekanst says, are “the future of Cambodia”.
“[Much] art is so focused on deconstructing [the past],” she says. “There needs to be a balance of reconstruction.”
Five of the women will be at the exhibition opening on Saturday, and one, Sonethea Tann, will sing in both English and Khmer. Aside from the art, the exhibition will have listening stations where visitors can don a pair of headphones and hear the story of the woman in each painting.
The images and stories will also appear on Gutekanst’s YouTube channel once the exhibition is underway.
Through her exhibition, Gutekanst hopes to educate people outside the country about the lives of ordinary people, and inspire Cambodians, too: that their story goes beyond the country’s recent, tragic past, allowing them to define themselves in their own way.
Willpower launches on Saturday at 6:30pm at 1961 Gallery, 211 Osaphear Street. The exhibition runs through November 4.
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