The title of the latest exhibition by artist Nget Chanpenh, “Waiting for the Ice Melt,” only hints at what it might depict.
It’s only when you see the paintings that it became clear that the subject matter is a very raw and personal one: one called “Drowned” shows two men attempting not to fall into quicksand, their blue-and-ochre bodies outlined in black and their expressions ones of fear and panic.
The “ice” in the main title refers to crystal methamphetamine (known popularly as ice), and the series chronicles Mr. Chanpenh’s descent into drug addiction to his fight to emerge from its grips.
The 23-year-old was introduced to the drug by friends in June 2015. He tried it out of curiosity, believing it would be no big deal.
What followed was an 18-month ordeal taking him to the depths of drug dependency. Within months, he was heavily addicted and used throughout the following year, sometimes up to six times a week, costing up to $100 a time.
He even became a father to a son during this period.
During the journey, Mr. Chanpenh kept on painting, expressing on canvas what he was experiencing.
The result is 18 paintings—one for each of the 18 months of his addiction—which opens Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
“When I was painting, I did not mean those works as messages to depict a drug addict’s feelings,” the artist said. “I only knew that I wanted to do it, to bring all that was in my heart and put it on canvas.”
“United in Hell” sees men standing with their arms around each other, their torsos bare and their elongated faces and hair seemingly aflame.
Mr. Chanpenh tried many times to quit. This struggle is reflected in “Dilemma,” featuring a man dressed in green against an orange-red background with one hand over his eyes and holding the drug while the other is closed into a fist, torn between smoking and trying to stop using.
After seven months trying to give up, Ms. Chanpenh stopped.
“I finally sat down and pondered what were the benefits it was giving us [drug addicts], why we were always taking so much risk,” he said.
The painting “My Way” shows his feelings at the time as a man emerges from a misty orange and gold haze, his eyes wide open and his face expressing determination to pull through.
“What made me stop was my family and…the friends surrounding me, true friends who did not let this destroy the yearslong friendship we had built,” Mr. Chanpenh said.
His wife also stood by him. “She talked to me firmly but always as a wife loving her husband,” he said.
Art was his savior too.
Born into a poor family of farmers in Banteay Meanchey province, Mr. Chanpenh worked as a child laborer in Thailand, taking care of cattle from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sent back to Cambodia, he studied at the free art school of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpalk in Battambang City. He later joined the artist group Romcheik 5 in Battambang. His work has been featured in several exhibitions.
“I would like to send a message,” he said. “If you are currently using drugs, please consider the pros and cons of what is happening to you: You have to figure out what you get out of it and makes you continue to use.”
The cost to one’s life is too high to make it worthwhile, he said.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)
What: ‘Waiting for the Ice Melt’
When: August 1, 6 p.m., followed by an artist talk at 8 p.m. and the screening of
documentary films on drug abuse in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Runs through August
Where: Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd.