Some artists paint scenes from today’s reality, others depict the drama they have lived through. But rather than sketch what is, Sutanta Piteak tries to express what could be.
“I want to draw things that no one has done yet,” he says, “future achievements, creation, innovation in technology [conceived] by the human brain.”
Not that Sutanta Piteak lacks the experience to describe poverty, hardship or other sides of life in Cambodia. After he decided to stop producing commercial art works for shop owners in Phnom Penh in January, he lived under plastic sheets with other squatters along a wall outside Wat Botum in Phnom Penh.
Only a few weeks ago did he move into a house with a monthly rent of $35 after selling some of his works, which are exhibited at Sala ArtSpace on Sisowath Quay above Mekong Web, through Sept 16. Some of the paintings on display once served to patch holes in the plastic roof of his makeshift abode at Wat Botum.
Sutanta Piteak says he has chosen a path with his art, one that could lead to a better world by adhering to Buddhist and Brahman principles and Cambodia’s ancient magical beliefs.
“All new creations in construction, technology and culture preservation come from the human brain, from ideas,” Sutanta Piteak says. “Therefore to turn ourselves into useful and meaningful people, we must clearly understand religion—to be guided by it, to be led to walk and perform in the right way in order to bring about wonderful achievements in the future.”
Though Cambodian in themes and inspiration, his artwork leans mainly towards the contemporary, at times abstract with mere suggestions of objects. His pieces range from an occasional nude figure, perfect in form and elegance, to modern renderings of the Bayon temple’s enigmatic faces.
A warrior flying on a mythical horse in one oil painting, shaped in copper against a burned orange and ocher sky, becomes a coppery evocation among grey clouds in the next one, both artworks inspired by the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian-epic tale Ramayana.
In one of Sutanta Piteak’s subtle pencil drawings, a man appears in a haze of light and mist, the powerful muscles of his arms and legs in motion, with a tiger at his side.
Two artworks of Angkorian women are meant to show that they were, Sutanta Piteak says, “very strong and clever and smart.” King Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century was able to build his empire because of his wife’s support, he says.
One of them features apsaras in classic celestial dancer style, working on computers with architectural renderings on their screens, in grassy green tones.
“Today,” Sutanta Piteak says, “women are the principal human resource to develop the country—they can accomplish anything.”
Born in Phnom Penh in August 1967, Sutanta Piteak grew up with three older sisters. His family was evacuated to Battambang province during the Khmer Rouge regime. After Pol Pot’s defeat in 1979, his family remained in Battambang province and, in the mid-1980s, Sutanta Piteak obtained support from the provincial Education Department to study at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.
One of his uncles was a sculpture teacher at RUFA and encouraged him to take up sculpture and molding. He later turned to drawing and contemporary art, and worked as a photographer for weddings, funerals and other events in-between classes to earn money.
After graduation in 1991, Sutanta Piteak entered the monkhood, choosing Wat Botum. At first, becoming a monk had been a matter of tradition as sons do in Cambodia to bring their parents blessings for having given them life.
“But I gained more than I had expected,” he says. “Buddhist principles taught me how to have self control, be patient, poised and to trust…. I became a reasonable person.”
He left the monkhood four years later, and started painting on commission for shops and galleries, hotels, restaurants and even garment factories.
He did both contemporary and Cambodian traditional works, and also painted portraits of 1960s popular artists for music cassette covers, at times having to reproduce the original covers of Nhek Dim, one of the country’s best known artists of the 1960s.
This year, however, Sutanta Piteak went back to doing his own projects. He regularly goes to the Buddhist Institute to pursue his study of religious principles and get ideas for paintings.
Because of his years as a monk, Sutanta Piteak says, “I can apply Buddhist rule into my drawing. I can help carry on Khmer classical and contemporary art as well as Buddhist principles for my compatriots through my drawings.”