Portraying Cambodia, Art Spans Worlds of Politics and Nature

Deep in the Wood

When: Opens tonight at 6 p.m. Runs through July 3
Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd.

Free admission

Artist Hour Seyha recalls a village chief addressing local residents at a recent meeting. “The villagers did not seem to understand what he was saying, but they looked as if they really believed what the man was telling them,” he said. “I felt sorry for these people.”

This is one of the inspirations behind “Deep in the Wood,” an exhibition of artworks conceived by Mr. Seyha and his fellow artist Bor Hak that opens today in Phnom Penh.

Sculpture entitled Studded Face listening to propaganda by Bor Hak 65 cm. Photo Alain Troulet
A sculpture, ‘Studded Face (listening to propaganda)’ by Battambang City artist Bor Hak, depicts the way people are bombarded with political messages. The provocative work is on display at Phnom Penh’s Meta House until July 3. (Alain Troulet)

Here, Mr. Seyha’s paintings and Mr. Hak’s wood sculptures are married together to reflect two main themes.

One is that the essence of a Cambodian’s world is rooted in nature. In “The Silence,” a forest scene by Mr. Seyha, the 27-year-old artist evokes the spirits people believe in by depicting tree bark in a mosaic of muted blues and browns, deep gold and green against a hushed mauve and charcoal background. The work is vibrant with life—both seen and unseen.

The second theme, the way people are bombarded with political messages—whether they carry truths or falsehoods—is conveyed in a dramatic sculpture by Mr. Hak. The wooden figure of a man is shown to the waist. His palms are pressed together in either prayer or respect; his mouth, ears and one eye are filled with long iron nails.

The nails represent information violently ramming into his head. Entitled “Studded Face (listening to propaganda),” the work is contemporary, yet timeless. 

Bor Hak’s sculpture entitled “The Eyes” and Hour Seyha’s painting entitled “The Silence.” Photo Alain Troulet
Bor Hak’s sculpture ‘The Eyes’ and Hour Seyha’s painting ‘The Silence’. (Alain Troulet)

“Many politicians are just focusing on getting full victory in the elections,” the 26-year-old sculptor said. They don’t seem to look beyond that to the scope of corruption and deforestation in the country, he added.

Still, the two artists go beyond the ills of the present. Some of their works reflect Cambodians’ serenity and determination to survive.

Both grew up in poor families and worked as child laborers in Thailand, at times picking pineapples and working in a clothing factory. They later attended the art school of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang City, which provides artistic training, education and social support to children and young adults, and joined the artist collective Romcheik 5 in the city after graduation.

Painting by Hour Seyha entitled Exodus. Photo Alain Troulet
Hour Seyha’s ‘The Exodus’. (Alain Troulet)

Mr. Seyha’s painting “The Exodus”—a detailed work in muted colors done in a technique close to pointillism—shows people walking peacefully with baskets on their heads and buffalo carts as their homes disappear in the background. And Mr. Hak’s sculpture “The Eyes” strikes the viewer: an elongated figure, painted black with huge eyes in white with small black pupils, missing a portion of his torso, that is more like a sketch of a person than a whole being.

For the series, Mr. Seyha used oils to paint the background and acrylic for other elements. Mr. Hak sculpted wood found discarded in villages and at pagodas.

“I recycled them into sculptures to send the message that nearly all our forests are gone and that wood is precious,” he said.

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