Artist Leang Seckon Reflects on Cambodia’s Journey

Leang Seckon has spent the past few years revisiting through his art a childhood that was filled with the sound of bombs falling over his village in the early 1970s. Through his elaborate collages, he has also reflected on the vibrant world of songs and movies in 1960s Cambodia—a world that died during the Pol Pot years.

In his latest series, the artist has become even more personal, illustrating the journey of a Cambodian man who grew up amid this turmoil and emerges today in a country very much connected with the global scene, having to decide who he is.

Artwork by Leang Seckon (Siv Channa)
Artwork by Leang Seckon (Siv Channa)

Entitled “Hell on Earth,” Mr. Seckon’s series of 14 large works—mainly 2-by-2 meters—and five small collages will be exhibited in London in a solo show opening Friday at Asia House. The month-long exhibition has been organized by the London gallery Rossi & Rossi, which represents him.

A few of the works are the tapestry-style scenes for which Mr. Seckon is known. “World Born,” for instance, is a vast patchwork of painted images and pasted illustrations from past and present. They range from Chinese artists and international movie stars to old motorcycles and new sports cars, images of century-old British royals and a Gustav Klimt painting. They also include Hindu and Buddhist imagery along with an Angkorian sculpture.

This work is about the “normal world” to which Cambodia now has access, Mr. Seckon said in an interview. “I talk about…the universe born, the city born, the art born…growth of nature, of the country, everything exploding.”

Also in his signature style, there is the painting he describes as “King Sihanouk’s Tea Party.” The work is divided into four sections with the late King Norodom Sihanouk in the middle, pouring tea. A sign above him reads, “King Sihanouk’s Tea Shop.”

The two upper quadrants of the work show images related to the Khmer Rouge and political factions of the 1980s that King Sihanouk eventually brought to the negotiating table, which led to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and the official end of war in the country. The lower sections refer to today’s political parties, the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP, which, Mr. Seckon noted, could do with a “tea party” to iron out their differences.

However, several of the paintings in the series are a marked departure from Mr. Seckon’s familiar exuberant collages.

“Hell on Earth” is a striking work featuring an elephant carrying a man and two figures dressed in black Khmer Rouge-era garb. Although garlands of flowers adorn the elephant, the people are in the process of killing, and the bottom half of the painting is red with the blood of their victims. An emaciated figure of the Buddha stands below, comforting the dead.

Entitled “The Elephant and the Pond of Blood,” the artwork illustrates the Khmer saying “Chheam Dap Poh Damrei,” or “blood reaching to the stomach of the elephant.” The upper part of the work is painted on fabric from the skirts that village women wore and mended endlessly during the civil war in the early 1970s, he said. The lower part is a collage of red paper for wrapping incense sticks.

The last painting of the series is entitled “Desire,” or “Kiles” in Khmer. It features a nude man seen from the back who is looking at himself in the mirror where his face is reflected as a tiger while his shadow on the wall is that of a wolf. These actually are the three figures on the back of the elephant in the first painting.

The acrylic work about a man’s journey is based on Mr. Seckon’s life, the 44-year-old artist explained. It is painted on three kramas, the iconic checked Cambodian scarf.

In the 1980s, Mr. Seckon lived in the countryside, watching over buffaloes in the field. “After the Khmer Rouge, life was difficult,” he said. “We were poor. Sometimes I would cry because I could not go to school and I was just a buffalo boy.” Mr. Seckon had wealthy relatives in Phnom Penh whom he would envy, unsure how to be as successful as them. In the end, he listened to some of their advice about the importance of education, but chose his own distinctive path.

In “Desire,” Mr. Seckon explained, “The young man tries to learn about himself…and he’s scared.”

Unfortunately, he soon gets caught in unrealistic dreams of fame and wealth, and ends up seeing a powerful tiger in the mirror instead of his own reflection. “He has wasted his future because he lost knowledge of who he is: He just wants to be a movie star,” Mr. Seckon said.

This outcome differs from Mr. Seckon’s own. “Today, I’m very clear about my own journey…. As for my appearance, some say my face is not very international, but I reply that it’s beautiful because it’s like any of those at Angkor,” he said, laughing.

This will be the second solo exhibition that Rossi & Rossi is staging of Mr. Seckon’s work in London, the first one having been in 2010. Since then, the artist’s work has featured in Singapore twice, and Mr. Seckon took part in the Season of Cambodia arts festival in New York last year.

“I think what is special is the way that Seckon can make the public [feel] very personal and vice versa:  The public is never indifferent in front of Seckon’s work, on the contrary there is always great engagement and interest in the story behind the paintings and the artist,” the gallerist Fabio Rossi said in an email.

Leang Seckon’s exhibition “Hell of Earth” runs through July 25 at Asia House in London.

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