Painter Draws Inspiration From Crucial Role of Rice in Cambodia

Cambodia may have entered the digital age in some ways, but millions of Cambodians still work barefoot in rice fields as in centuries past, entirely dependent on the crop both for their livelihood and for subsistence.

These are the Cambodians that artist Nou Sary features in his latest series of paintings, which open in an exhibition on Saturday at the restaurant Lava at the River Bay Villa in Siem Reap City.

Nou Sary's painting 'Bicycle'  (Nataly Lee)
Nou Sary’s painting ‘Bicycle’ (Nataly Lee)

Rice, he said, “is Cambodia’s reality: It’s crucial for Cambodian people.” Every meal means rice and, for the majority of Cambodians, life revolves around farming it, he said.

Using an impressionist style in which painted lines evoke rice plants swaying in a soft breeze, Mr. Sary has portrayed workers in the field and created scenes illustrating how crucial rice is to Cambodians.

In the painting “Bicycle,” workers appear as dabs of red and blue in an ocean of gold and brown as they cross a field on bicycles. In “Alone,” a worker with a red blouse and white hat appears behind a blue-green veil in the early morning light.

And there is “Nature Changed,” the black-and-white scene of a man on his knees in darkness with only his back and a portion of his body visible, the texture of his skin reminiscent of plant roots.

“He is praying for rain so rice will grow,” Mr. Sary explained.

Born in 1971, Mr. Sary learned the value of food early in life. After losing his father—a government soldier—during the Khmer Rouge regime, he found himself fishing and catching snakes to help his mother feed the family in the early 1980s.

Nou Sary paints earlier this month at his studio in Siem Reap City. (Nataly Lee)
Nou Sary paints earlier this month at his studio in Siem Reap City. (Nataly Lee)

He moved to Phnom Penh in 1984 in the hope of getting an education, but spent his first two years living on the street, selling small Cambodian cakes, he said. Then he was accepted at a government orphanage where he was able to study.

In 1993, he passed the entrance exam for the Royal University of Fine Arts and began studying there in 1994, living on campus and working as a security guard at night. He graduated in 1999.

In the early 2000s, Mr. Sary attended several arts and photo workshops at the Institut Francais, and soon obtained a French government scholarship to study at the post-graduate arts and design school Ecole Superieure d’Art et Design de Saint-Etienne in southeastern France.

He stayed in the country for several years, working as an artist during the day and a chef of Japanese cuisine at night. He moved back to Cambodia about 18 months ago to focus on his art full-time in Siem Reap City.

The paintings in the upcoming exhibition range in size from canvases of 1 square meter to wall-sized murals. Mr. Sary used both oil and acrylic, on krama fabric as well as canvas.

The show opens on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Parts of the proceeds from artwork sales will go to Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap City.

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