Artist Strives for Collective Image of Contemporary Cambodia

“Back in Time (of Peace),” Marine Ky’s exhibition, is meant as an expression of Cambodia today.

Since she returned to Cambodia in 2000, Ky has been looking for the country Cambodia has become—not the world described by her parents, who left Phnom Penh on the last US plane to take off before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975.

Growing up in Macau, and later in France, as a Cambodian immigrant, Ky always had the feeling that the country her parents remembered was more illusion than fact, she said. “They would talk either of paradise or war.”

For them, Cambodia in the 1960s had been a heaven that had turned sour with the Lon Nol political takeover in 1970 and the US bombardments of the war in Vietnam spilling over the border, she said. And it later became a nightmare during the Khmer Rouge era, she said.

Having left the country at age 4, Ky craved to discover the real Cambodia when she returned three years ago, after completing her university studies in Australia. An artist who specializes in printmaking, she was eager to look at textiles and handicrafts produced in the country, she said.

Her designs may incorporate traditional patterns, but they are treated in a decidedly contemporary way. In her “Mount Meru 2003,” for example, a Khmer pattern is printed on a hand-woven blend of cotton and nylon.

Most pieces consist of layers upon layers of fabric that are the combined work of many people. Her work “Hands” was done in 2001 by street children in the care of the NGO Mith Samlanh/

Friends, Ky said. Each participant had to trace his or her hand and then stitch the sketch on a piece of organza about 30 cm by 43 cm, roughly the size of paper sheets people use to make offerings at pagodas, she said.

The artwork is made of 60 of these rectangles, and there may be two to three layers of them to each rectangle. These numerous patches reflect the fragmented lives of Cambodians over the last 30 years of turmoil and their efforts to build their present and future, said Ky.

While “Hands” is done in muted tones of pink, green, yellow and khaki, the hanging “Mekong/not scarlet 2003” fills one room of Java Cafe with an explosion of vibrant raspberry red and white thread.

The thread actually is a fishnet in which school children have knotted red strips of cotton. The fishnet symbolizes life—the tool that brings fish, Cambodia’s staple food along with rice, Ky said. It was made earlier this year by 360 students of Wat Bo Elementary School in Siem Reap town.

Both “Hands” and “Mekong” were conceived to show what can be done when Cambodians work together, Ky said. “What I can do with my hand is not significant,” she said. “But 100 hands or 1,000 hands can do a lot.”

Her art is also about pride, making Cambodians who work on these pieces feel proud of what they have done, Ky said.

At Mith Samlanh/Friends, “the kids concentrate very hard to accomplish well what is asked of them,” said Ly Sophat, the NGO’s program director. They have so far worked on two Ky creations.

At Wat Bo school, students would rush out of their classes to get to the fishnet when their turn came to work on it, said Sath Ratana, who assisted Ky on the project. Amid a great deal of laughter, students turned it into a competition between boys and girls, to see who would work faster, she said.

Even Ky’s simpler pieces involve, at the very least, teams of engravers to produce the design, and weavers to make the fabric on which the design will be printed.

Her artwork has been exhibited in Australia, France, Switzerland and Japan. In 2004, she will exhibit in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Melbourne, Australia, and in Phnom Penh toward the end of the year.

For these shows, Ky would like to involve Cambodians from a large number of schools and NGOs to create gigantic “Hands” and fishnet pieces. “I want to bring an awareness of Cambodia today, of the reality of Cambodia that goes beyond Angkor, that goes beyond the genocide, and that goes beyond the paradise of my parents’ memories,” she said.

Her exhibition at Java Cafe runs through Jan 4.

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