Artist Draws on Anguished Childhood to Create Haunting Imagery

“My childhood was not a happy one,” Mil Chankrim says.

As a 13-year-old, an orphaned Mr. Chankrim illegally crossed the Thai border, where he was forced into child labor.

From left: 'Waiting for the Last Sunrise,' 'The Falling Faqir' and 'Starving in Opulence,' by Mil Chankrim (Alain Troulet)
From left: ‘Waiting for the Last Sunrise,’ ‘The Falling Faqir’ and ‘Starving in Opulence,’ by Mil Chankrim (Alain Troulet)

It’s this “suffering and trauma,” he says, that fueled the now 23-year-old’s first solo art exhibition, “Characters of My Inner Tale,” which opens at Romeet Gallery in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

Through his paintings, he shares his story as experienced by the boy he once was. This haunting—and haunted—private sphere, often represented by either bold or oppressively pallid backgrounds, forms the emotional backdrop to Mr. Chankrim’s troubled childhood.

The 18 artworks are divided into six groupings, each corresponding to a character from this narrative, entitled “Solitude,” “Paradoxes,” “Humanimals,” “Humanoids,” “Album Photo Souvenirs” and “Bamboo Cages.”

Feelings of longing, entrapment and depression are articulated through color and Mr. Chankrim’s intense rendition of the often-deformed figures in the rawness of art brut compositions that nonetheless echo more matured Expressionism.

“Basically, art is the best medicine to cure trauma,” said the artist, who has already shown in group exhibitions in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Paris.

Born in Banteay Meanchey province, Mr. Chankrim was raised by his grandmother. His father abandoned the family and his mother died of malaria when he was aged 9. Forced to quit school, his grandmother took him to Thailand in the hope of finding work.

“As a child laborer at a Thai factory, I had to carry sometimes 20- or 30-kg water containers in exchange for small money,” he said.

When he returned to Cambodia after about seven months, Mr. Chankrim was sent to an orphanage in Battambang province, where he showed an aptitude for painting. Two years later, he began studying art at the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, which uses art as a means to help children deal with trauma.

Now, Mr. Chankrim forms part of the Romcheik 5 collective of four young Battambang artists, who share their experiences as migrant child laborers.

The group has been supported by former Institut Francais director Alain Troulet, who bought a studio space for them after being moved by some of their art.

“Even if many artists in Cambodia are born from modest backgrounds, the artists of Romcheik5 are the only ones, as far as I know, to have experienced these outrages of modern slavery, and therefore the only ones able to tell about this trauma that happen to so many children in Cambodia but who will never have the chance to express it,” Mr. Troulet wrote in an email.

Yet more than cathartic expression, Mr. Chankrim hopes his art will rouse social consciousness of the horrors of child labor.

“This exhibition is to send a message to all Cambodians that any children who have suffered trauma are unable to heal,” Mr. Chankrim said.

“It’s like it’s a shadow following us all the time. When a child is traumatized, even when it grows up, it still bears the pain and suffering.”

The exhibition runs until January 20.

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