In Paris and Phnom Penh, Painters Juggle Jobs, Abstract Art

Thav Savann and Teang Borin may be separated by a generation and nearly 10,000 km, but they are linked by a dogged pursuit of art, exuberant spirits and passion for color.

The two abstract artists, featured in an exhibition opening tonight at the InterContinental hotel’s Insider Gallery, share a love for painting that has led them both to reorient their professional and personal lives.

Teang Borin's painting 'The Leaf and the Bud.' (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Teang Borin’s painting ‘The Leaf and the Bud.’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Savann was an 18-year-old medical student when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975. From his home province of Prey Veng along the Vietnamese border, he fled to Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City was then called. He would remain there for four years, living with other Cambodian refugees and selling handbags he made with a knot macrame technique.

It was only in January 1979, as the Vietnamese army with a Cambodian contingent was ousting the Khmer Rouge, that he got his papers to move to Paris. He took up hairdressing, and soon turned to painting, both as a refuge from his challenging life and because he was passionate about art.

“It’s a form of meditation, a way to make sense of life, to get through difficult times, come to terms with the past…and live with what one has,” he said Tuesday. Starting with figurative painting, he switched to abstract over time.

Still in Paris, the 59-year-old awakes at dawn, paints until noon in his studio and works at his hair salon in the afternoons. “I’m not attached to material goods,” he said “Whenever I complete a painting, to me that’s being rich.”

An untitled painting by Thav Savann (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

His paintings, which have been exhibited in France, Thailand and Singapore, are subtle acrylic works filled with life and movement. In one, shown in Phnom Penh, deep orange swirls mix with fuchsia and white spirals, creating a vibrant yet peaceful abstract scene.

Teang Borin’s paintings also have elements of abstract painting, which he uses as backdrop to portray Khmer classical dancers.

The 35-year-old artist, who signs his work “Din,” suggests, rather than portrays, actual performers, focusing on the beauty and flowing movement.

“I love the history of the dance,” he said Monday. “The music, the movement, the costumes—it’s just so perfect: They’re art.”

An architect by profession, Mr. Borin had been working for an architectural firm and painting in his spare time when he came across what seemed to him the perfect space for a studio and gallery in the Riverside neighborhood of Phnom Penh in September. He decided to switch focus, becoming a full-time artist and a freelance architect.

“I’ve always been an artist, ever since I was a little kid,” he said. Growing up in Kampot City, he first painted sceneries and rice fields.

He discovered the grace of Khmer classical dancers when he moved to Phnom Penh to study.

Mr. Borin mainly uses black printer’s ink as a backdrop and acrylic paint for the dancers. In his work entitled “Heaven,” gracious dancers with traditional headgear and costumes emerge from a magenta cloud, their skirts a deeper shade of the same color.

In “The Softness Movement,” a dancer in a dark blue-green skirt and white headdress seems to stand behind a veil of rain.

The exhibition runs through August.

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