Portrait Artist Captures Inner Lives of Cambodian Women

The Cambodian women in Margherita del Balzo’s portraits are not dreamlike, ethereal love­lies, as dancers are often depicted, nor are they the smiling girls of countless travel photos, more charm than substance.

Here are, in their serenity, the Cambodian women who have carried the country through invasions and wars over the centuries, the wives and mothers who rebuilt their families’ lives after strife.

In del Balzo’s “Women’s Traits and Portraits” series exhibited at the French Cultural Center through Feb 7, they are shown in muted colors, wearing their everyday clothes on backdrops going from brown to grey, which en­hance their coloring.

One woman in a pale green blouse is holding a deep yellow shawl around her shoulders, the purplish blue of her skirt blending with the color of the background—the work reminiscent of a 17th century Dutch painting.

In another portrait, a woman in a pale red blouse looks over her shoulder, her hair tied on the nape of her neck, set against shades of brown.

Capturing these women’s inner lives beyond their outward attractiveness took time, said del Balzo. This involved taking their photos, as well as doing series of sketches, before starting on the portraits themselves, she said.

Although she had meant to do women’s portraits for a long time, she said, “I was a bit afraid to jump into this project as photographers do excellent work with portraits…. But I like to take risks.”

Most of all, the Cambodian women she met impressed her and so she wanted to portray them, said the Italian artist.

The artworks themselves are made of several layers of textured paper that del Balzo made from natural fibers, with every color consisting of a separate thin paper layer. Shading and accents were then applied with China ink.

“The effect may be similar to paint, but it is not,” del Balzo said.

Although she keeps a stock of paper, she said, “At times, I must make sheets in the course of a work for a specific purpose—a certain shade for skin or clothes. When I go to the countryside, I may get intrigued by an herb, a tuft of bamboo or a vegetal fiber. I try them out to find the texture I need.”

In some of the works, del Balzo only uses a single layer of paper. “I take advantage of the texture of the sheet to give the impression that the subject is emerging from the paper,” she said.

Born in 1962, del Balzo grew up in Rome and studied fine arts in Paris.

She discovered papermaking in the Philippines in the early 1990s, and started making her own stock in Burkina Faso in West Africa in the late 1990s. Since moving to Cambodia in 2004, she has mostly been making paper with kapok fruit fiber, she said.

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