In Surreal Images, Artist Speculates on Berliners’ Inner Lives

Oeur Sokuntevy’s latest series of paintings, “Upside Down,” reflects what reality becomes when seen beyond the facade.

Looking at her work, in an exhibition that opens tonight in Phnom Penh, one ventures beyond the ordinary to perceive the flow of life, and the energy of people’s ideas and imagination, which they tend to hide behind impassive stances.

Oeur Sokuntevy explains her painting entitled Berliner Nachbarschaft. Photo Dana Langlois
Oeur Sokuntevy explains her painting ‘Berliner Nachbarschaft. (Dana Langlois)

“I’m interested with the between-real-life-and-imagination,” she said, and of seeing magic in scenes as commonplace as people on a bus, on the streets or in parks.

Ms. Sokuntevy has been living in Berlin for nearly two years with her husband Johannes Kast. Being an international city, residents speak English, which has made everyday communication easier, the 33-year-old artist said.

Still, she felt she had to speak their language in order to truly grasp who Berliners are. So for seven months, Ms. Sokuntevy took intensive German classes, five hours a day, five days a week. And to get to class, she would take public transportation.

“People sit there, some with their telephones, others reading, a few talking,” she said in an interview on Friday. “They’re alone. They focus. They do what they do. And this interested me.”

Unlike Cambodia or other countries in which people get into conversation with strangers, Berliners don’t have “chats,” she said. Except if one breaks the rules, as Ms. Sokunthevy experienced one day when she rode her bicycle on the wrong side of the road as she neared home and a Berliner stopped to tell her she should not break the law, even for a short distance.

Oeur Sokuntevys painting entitled Transfiguration I. Photo Dana Langlois
Oeur Sokuntevy’s ‘Transfiguration I’. (Dana Langlois)

In the new series at Java Cafe, painted in her signature surrealist style, Ms. Sokuntevy illustrates the inner life and energy that people keep quiet as they wait for a bus or ride in one, her use of soft colors reflecting an imaginative side or a free spirit they may keep hidden from the world. The series also features Berlin street scenes and the public parks that she loves. Her use of gentle tones and soft colors are reminiscent of watercolor, although the works are done with oils.

In “Waiting Spring,” three women sit on public benches floating in space, each one focused on her phone or lost in her thoughts. A fourth sits nearby casually holding her dog’s leash, both dog and mistress wearing sunglasses. The dog is the only one with eyes on the viewer.

In “City Life Berlin,” people rush to climb into a bus, obviously cold in their sweaters and scarves. The top of the bus becomes a surreal scene of people having coffee or casually working on computers with their torsos turning into a multicolor mist.

Born in Battambang City, Ms. Sokuntevy studied art at the school of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak. Based in Phnom Penh before moving to Berlin, she has had her work exhibited over the years in Cambodia and in several countries.


What: ‘Upside Down’ by Oeur Sokuntevy

When/Where: Opening at 6:30 p.m. tonight; artist talk on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Ends August 31. Java Cafe, 56 Sihanouk Blvd., Phnom Penh.

Free admission

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