Pich Sopheap says he has always struggled to break new ground through his artwork.
For the 32-year-old, the eldest son of Cambodian refugees, one of his first steps to becoming a painter was to fight against his parents’ wishes.
“My father cried when he found out I was taking painting classes in college,” he said. “My parents were hoping I’d become a pharmacist or something valuable.”
As the first-born, he says, he had been expected to set an example for his four brothers. But instead, he decided to pursue his own dream.
“I feel like a rebel to my family and to my whole line of people,” he said. “But I have my work and I have clarity in who I am.”
Pich Sopheap’s paintings themselves break through traditional barriers with their bold, crisp images of urns and vessels and minimal brush strokes.
They speak, not through the pictorial narratives of traditional Cambodian art, but through colors and shapes, Pich Sopheap says.
His exhibition, titled “Excavating the Vessels,” at Java Cafe & Gallery is his first since he returned to Cambodia from the US in November.
Pich Sopheap and his family left Cambodia in 1979 and stayed in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines for nearly five years before moving to the US, where he has lived for much of his life.
His pursuit of art led him to study in Massachusetts, Chicago and in France, eventually bringing him back to Phnom Penh.
“I felt like it was the right time to come back,” he said. “Cambodia felt like home the first time I got off the plane.”
Despite his exposure to Western artistic techniques and philosophies, Pich Sopheap says the themes of his work are still very much rooted here.
The images of urns and vessels he paints are Cambodian symbols. They are objects, he says, that have historically been used in Cambodian society for everything from carrying water to pickling fish to storing human remains.
He says he was intrigued by their forms and by their practical and aesthetic functions.
Pich Sopheap named the title of his exhibition after his birthplace, a town in Battambang province called Kors Kralor, which he says literally translates to “digging vessels.”
He paints these objects in warm earth tones—rich reds, oranges and blues—with such little detail, many of his paintings resemble prints. Their simplicity, he says, intends to evoke a sense calm.
“I need quiet because I’m living here,” he says, gesturing toward the heavy traffic on Sihanouk Boulevard. “When I paint, it’s like meditation for me.”
The materials he uses are homemade concoctions consisting of powder pigments, glues and shellacs.
Pich Sopheap says he hopes to inspire a new dialogue for Cambodian artists. The vocabulary to express how one experiences art do not exist in Khmer, he says.
“I try to explain how color exposes a sense of smell but they can’t understand it. That is a new knowledge for them,“ he said.
His aim is to collaborate with other like-minded artists to create a gallery in the city where they can exchange ideas and provide workshops.
“I want energy in this place. I want people to think of Cambodian artists as having some kind of intelligence. I don’t think that’s the case right now,” he said, adding that he feels too many local artists simply make multiple productions of their work to sell.
“Art should liberate the mind. It should not make a person stuck. It should help them move forward in their thinking,” he said.
“Excavating the Vessels” is on exhibit at Java Cafe & Gallery until mid-August.