Artist Explores Pain of Widowhood and Divorce

In Cambodia, the term used to describe a woman who no longer has a husband is “me mai,” the same term being used whether she is divorced or widowed. According to Mil Chankrim, such women share more than a label.

“Many of my neighbors, friends and women I know and meet are widows or divorced,” the 24-year-old artist said in an interview on Friday. “I see them live with so many problems that they cannot overcome. They carry pain and depression as if they had lost the most important thing in life.”

'Into the Cold' by Mil Chankrim (Sovanrith Khull)
‘Into the Cold’ by Mil Chankrim
(Sovanrith Khull)

Mr. Chankrim’s own mother was abandoned by his father, and the memory of watching her struggle with depression while attempting to support her children on her own has inspired his latest series of paintings, which will be shown in an exhibition opening Wednesday at Java Cafe & Gallery in Phnom Penh.

Entitled “Me Mai,” the works feature husbandless women in a subdued way that emphasizes the quiet tragedy of their lives. Mr. Chankrim has portrayed the women in watercolor on pa­per, using a surrealist style.

In a piece entitled “Loss of Bal­ance,” a woman wearing a red-and-white blouse and a krama around her head stands precariously with a teenager on each side of her, the lower part of her body sketchily outlined.

In “Into the Cold,” a woman hugs a blanket around her body as the krama on her head unravels with lengths of thread falling from it.

“The majority of​​ divorced women and widows think that their situation is due to their bad karma, which is why they are different from other women who have good families,” said Kim Thida, a psychologist and re­searcher on wom­en’s issues.

“This is a culture in which people are of the mindset that whenever a marriage ends, the woman must be labeled a bad woman and blamed for her husband dying, or called a devil woman who has caused her husband to divorce her,” she said.

'Leave the Nest' by Mil Chankrim (Sovanrith Khull)
‘Leave the Nest’ by Mil Chankrim (Sovanrith Khull)

Moreover, there is a stigma attached to women who have had more than one husband. So on top of the usual concerns about whether a marriage will work if they remarry, women are afraid of being branded women with multiple husbands, Ms. Thida said. “In the countryside, it’s even more difficult for women who are divorced or widowed to remarry because of that mindset,” she said.

But even in cities, she added, “I see a very small number of di­vorced women and widows remarrying, and only if they are financially independent and well-educated.” This is why so many widows and divorced women fall into de­pression, Ms. Thida noted.

“Some women seem to think that losing a husband is losing everything in life,” Mr. Chankrim said.

Many Western women, however, adopt a different attitude, whether widowed or divorced, he said. “They stay strong and live with confidence. I hope my paintings will encourage Cambodian women to do the same.”

Mr. Chankrim, who graduated from the art school of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang City in 2013, is part of a group of artists who share living and studio space in the city, calling themselves Rom­cheik 5.

He spent more than a year on his latest series, which he hopes will also encourage people to view divorced women and widows differently.

The exhibition at Java Cafe opens at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday and will run through November 29.

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