Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards



New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards

An image from Neak Sophal’s Flower series. Photo supplied
An image from Neak Sophal’s Flower series. Photo supplied

New photo exhibition takes on Cambodian gender double standards

Up-and-coming Cambodian conceptual photographer Neak Sophal’s new exhibition, Flower, is quietly subversive as it challenges traditional notions of female beauty.

The series, which was the product of six months work, is based on a Khmer saying that compares women to white paper and men to gold. If gold were dropped in the mud, the saying goes, it could be polished and cleaned and will never tarnish.

White paper, meanwhile, gets permanently stained and, once considered dirty, no longer has value. The proverb is a not-so-subtle reminder of the need for women to behave themselves sexually, or else they “lose their value”.

“If you are virginal, you are a valued woman. If you don’t have it, you are not a good woman . . . For me, it is an unacceptable comparison, because women and men are human and we live together,” she says.

Gender studies has long been a subject of interest for the 28-year-old Royal University of Fine Arts graphic design graduate. Her distinctive conceptual style results in work that often serves as social commentary, highlighting what she sees as invisible social issues in Cambodian culture.

She won the Photo Prize at the Angkor Photo Festival in 2013 with her exhibition The Hang On, featuring subjects from all walks of life in Cambodia with their faces obscured by objects, usually related to their jobs, which have overtaken their identity.

In Sophal’s images, the subjects are framed by flowers a motif inspired by the frequent comparisons in songs, movies and stories of women to flowers. She then drops paint on the photograph to produce her final product, to prove that stains do not always have to be dirty and can be an element of beauty itself.

The artist, Neak Sophal.
The artist, Neak Sophal. Eliah Lillis

It is as much a message to her models, most of whom are her family and friends, as to her viewers. By having them model bare-faced, she wants them to embrace their own appearance without makeup, and appreciate their own natural beauty.

Sophal gave the models the freedom to choose the variety of flowers to be photographed with. If it could not be readily sourced, the models were asked to pick a colour of their choice. The result is portraits that reveal not only the models’ beauty but also their individual tastes and quirks.

“One model likes broccoli. It was very specific, and so strange for me when I put it. She said she liked it because it is not just a flower, but we can also eat it,” she says.

By juxtaposing the beauty of her subjects and flowers, she wants her viewers to question how they see and value the beauty of women. A woman’s beauty, Sophal is trying to say, is not fleeting like that of a flower’s. Though beautiful at the beginning, “after one week it [a cut flower] is just a dead flower and people don’t want to see it anymore and just throw it away.”

Her work is also a wider statement on the gender inequality problem in Cambodia. “People don’t see it as a problem, but it is, and it is getting bigger and bigger. We say it is OK, but it is not OK. It is hard to see and it is hard to change.”

Neak Sophal’s Flower opens at Java Café and Gallery at 6:30pm on Tuesday, May 9. The exhibition, which will be displayed on the second floor of the café, runs through June 25.

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia unveils new quarantine regulations

    The government has modified Covid-19 quarantine requirements, shortening the duration for, among others, Cambodian officials, foreign diplomats and delegations, investors and inbound travellers in general. According to an official notice signed by Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng late on October 16, quarantine length for Cambodian

  • Cambodia sets new Covid-19 quarantine rules

    The government has modified Covid-19 quarantine requirements, shortening the duration for, among others, Cambodian officials, foreign diplomats and delegations, investors and inbound travellers in general. According to an official notice signed by Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng late on October 16, quarantine length for Cambodian

  • Hun Sen: Cambodia set to fully reopen

    Prime Minister Hun Sen concludes that the October 5-7 Pchum Ben public holiday, during which many people either flocked to their hometowns for family reunion or gathered at tourist attractions across the country, has not caused an outbreak of Covid-19. In a special address to

  • Will Evergrande change the way Chinese developers do business in Cambodia?

    China’s property sector policy has exposed the grim financial condition of real estate developers including those operating in Cambodia, which raises questions over the viability of their projects and business going forward The dark blue netting draping over one of Yuetai Group Co Ltd’

  • Cambodia voted ‘world’s friendliest country’ in Rough Guides reader poll

    Cambodia ranked number one among the “World’s Friendliest Countries”, according to a reader poll conducted by London-based international website “Rough Guides”. Taking submissions through Twitter and Facebook, “Rough Guides”, a well-known travel agency and publisher of guidebooks, said the Kingdom “was by far the

  • S’ville set to turn into ‘second Shenzhen’

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance has awarded a master plan consultancy contract to top Chinese institute for the development and transformation of Preah Sihanouk province into a “Model Multi-Purpose Special Economic Zone”, Southeast Asia’s next logistics and resort hub and innovation centre. The