The women who grace Mao Soviet’s paintings are faceless, but their naked bodies reflect a harsh reality present in Cambodia and worldwide.
At a glance, the images seem innocent: The women shown are poised in intimate, natural settings. But a closer look reveals a struggle between that innocence and something more disquieting.
The 14 paintings in Mao Soviet’s series, “The Immigrant,” showing at Java Cafe and Gallery until Aug 2, illustrate the plight of women and girls who are trafficked and consequently raped or abused while laboring under grueling work conditions—often in an effort to support their families. Each tells a part of the story, and whether the series depicts the experience of one woman or many is open to interpretation.
“It’s the story of a poor girl that wasn’t protected by her family, and who got trafficked and then raped,” said Ali Sanderson, an artist who helped coordinate the exhibit, adding that such a scenario is an all too common story for many poor women throughout the country.
The paintings are part of a chronology, she said. The first few are easy on the eye and are reminiscent of a Western aesthetic. The women appear protected and free, their voluptuous bodies embraced by natural surroundings. Yet, as the series progresses, a sense of despair and vulnerability seems palpable in their body language. The trees and vines that surround them no longer seem to offer protection, but rather lend themselves to a feeling of isolation and loneliness.
Perhaps the most striking painting in the series is “Bad Body,” which shows a woman hugging her beaten body. Her left breast is badly bruised.
Mao Soviet, an artist based in Battambang town, said that, at first, he did not realize human trafficking was such a widespread problem. It was only when he spoke to friends that he understood its extent. He decided, he said, to produce a series of paintings to spread awareness and illustrate the difficulties women face worldwide when poverty forces them to leave their homes.
“My painting[s] refer to all women,” the 28-year-old artist said by telephone. “It is not [just one] woman or Cambodian women, because…women all over the world are victims.”
The nudity was a way of celebrating women, he said, but also a way to show a contrast between women who were protected and treated well by their families, and those who were raped or abused as a result of trafficking.
Such a series is unique for a Cambodian artist, Sanderson said, as usually nudes are done in a more traditional context.
“From a Westerner’s aesthetic, [these paintings] are very easy on the eye,” Sanderson said, because Westerners are used to seeing nudes in art.
Mao Soviet said that some Cambodians were shocked when they saw his work at the exhibit’s opening earlier this month.“First, Cambodian youth were angry,” he said, “because they thought it was porn. But after I explained, they understood.”
This is a change from what is typically seen in Cambodian artists’ work in the country, Sanderson acknowledged.
“[Mao Soviet] is really quite a brave young guy,” she added.