Cambodia could hardly appear more different than in the three art exhibitions currently being held in Phnom Penh. But each of them shows a reality, filtered through diverse experiences.
David Harding’s oil paintings journey beyond the famous Cambodian smile, exposing the pain and sorrow that people rarely reveal. It’s all there-the deep misery, the losses one has learned to accept, the daily struggle to survive.
Emotions jump out of canvases when one walks into Java Cafe and Gallery. Most paintings are close-ups of people’s faces, with little room for other details.
“There is something about faces-they tell stories,” said Harding. “They affect you.”
From a distance, one sees people’s unguarded expressions in shades of black, brown and white. Up close, the artwork becomes abstracts, a myriad of color applied with paint knife in thick strokes.
The majority of the portraits feature Cambodians. In Luckyface, a woman gazes into the distance, with a lack of expression that suggests a tragic history. In Boy, tones of black and reddish brown depict a young subject far older than his years. Bang shows a man in his 40s lost in painful thoughts, his eyes closed.
Harding had never really painted when he arrived in Cambodia in April 2000.
“I came here determined to teach myself to paint. After six months, I found the courage to buy painting material,” he said.
Most of his artwork was borne out of observing people in Phnom Penh and, since he joined the NGO Friends/Mith Samlanh as a technical adviser in January, observing the staff and street children cared for by the NGO.
A serene country of beautiful farmland, in which people work peacefully in their fields, their homes surrounded by farm animals, with mountains in the background.
This is the Cambodia that emerges from the children’s drawings on exhibit at the office of the Cambodia National Commission for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Their vision of Cambodia is part dream, part reality, said Tan Theany, general secretary for the commission.
The drawings are the work of 20 elementary school students, the Cambodian contest winners of the 2000-2002 Festival of Asian Children’s Art., which is held every two years.
In some images, reality turns harsh. One drawing by a 12-year-old boy shows a man with an empty bottle in his hand, ready to beat his wife and children who are in tears and begging him to stop.
“All I want in happiness in families,” the young artist wrote underneath.
Noch Samanak, who won first-place in the contest, painted people running away from a man about to hit a land mine with a hammer.
“Land mines can destroy all living things, human beings and animals, indiscriminately,” which is why they should be reported to CMAC, he wrote underneath.
This entry earned the sixth-grade student from Tuol Kok Elementary School in Phnom Penh a trip to Tokyo to meet first-prize winners from 21 other Asian countries.
Another drawing of Noch Samanak’s shows a family walking with their hands tied behind their back and a guard raising his stick to hit them. Underneath, the 12-year-old boy wrote that parents and children were killed during the Pol Pot regime, which brought great sadness.
For the contest, children from six to 12 years old were asked to illustrate their daily lives. In Cambodia, 2,558 elementary-school students in Phnom Penh and in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Kampot, Kandal, Mondolkiri and Svay Rieng provinces submitted drawings.
Boys laughing in a fishing boat on the Tonle Sap lake; a little girl all dressed up for Khmer New Year; a monk taking a photo of a monk in front of Angkor Wat-these are some of the photos Jeanna Nash has taken to explain why she loves Cambodia.
Her photos on exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents Club were taken last year during a two-month trip through Cambodia and Burma.
In Great Britain, where she lives, there is little tourism promotion of Cambodia and Burma, she said. “People tell me, ‘Why are you going there.'”
Now she has photos to reply.
“When you love something, it shows,” she said.
In her artwork, Nash tries to capture the essence of a country and of its people, and to present as many aspects of life in that country as possible, she said.
Nash, who came to Phnom Penh for the exhibition, plans to travel throughout the country before going to Laos for a few weeks.