The Shape of Nature

Chhan Dina is a rarity in Cambodia. Not only is she a contemporary artist—an uncommon pursuit for women in the country—she is a sculptor.

Her latest exhibition, entitled “Cages Torn Open” and showing at Meta House, features virtual frescoes and clay sculptures illustrating the urgency of protecting animals and the environment.

An oil painting entitled ‘What Am I to You’ by artist Chhan Dina (Siv Channa)
An oil painting entitled ‘What Am I to You’ by artist Chhan Dina (Siv Channa)

The fauvism style of the early 20th century comes to mind as one looks at her oil paintings—alive with movement, the colors strong and sharp, the characters clearly outlined.

The work “What Am I to You” is dominated by the head of a lion looking at the viewer as human hands at the top of the painting reach out towards the animal and the tiger next to him.

“This represents people who touch and kill animals,” Ms. Dina said. “This tiger and lion stare as if to say ‘What do you want? What am I to you?’…They are scared for their friends and families,” she said.

Standing next to the painting “Show Respect”—with a buffalo at the top of the work meant to remind people to care for the animals that serve them—is the sculpture “Buffalo Man” with its head reminiscent of figures from Greek mythology.

In a painting-sculpture tandem, a woman’s upper body appears in a highly stylized clay work. Entitled “I close my eyes and see my dreams,” it is next to the painting “How do you see yourself,” in which she appears with her eyes open.

A blue line runs from her face down the middle of the image. “These are her tears” as she views the destruction of the forest in the country, Ms. Dina said. There will soon be no wilderness left if something is not done, she added.

The artist, who will be 30 years old next month, uses oil paint for her works, at times delineating figures with thick lines of the paint.

Preparing clay for her sculptures may take several weeks. This starts with a trip to a brick factory outside of Phnom Penh to get clay. Then she sieves it to remove any large debris, adds water and mixes the paste with white tissue paper. “If you don’t mix it [with paper], it cracks easily…tissue paper makes clay stronger,” she explained.

After letting it dry for a week, Ms. Dina squeezes the paste several times to remove any air bubbles and produces thick clay with which she can sculpt with her hands.

Born in Phnom Penh, Ms. Dina was taught by an American artist neighbor, Ron Rieman, who was so impressed by a clay cow that she made for him that he asked her mother to teach her drawing.

“My teacher said, ‘If you want to paint you have to learn to draw first,’” Ms. Dina recalls. “It was not easy: drawing, drawing, drawing every day until you get better.”

“Also he would say, ‘You draw something like a coconut, you draw the roots and imagine that it is something else.’ At the time, I was really confused; it was very hard for me to understand what it is to use imagination. It took me a long time to grasp what he meant.”

Ms. Dina later trained to be a teacher and currently teaches art at the Phnom Penh International School Institute of the Arts.
Her exhibition—a powerful showcase of the skills she has refined over two decades of dedication to her art—highlights our responsibility to protect forests and living creatures, she said.

“It does not matter what animal it is…they are alive like us. Cats, cranes, buffaloes, lions: All animals are important.”

“Cages Torn Open” at Meta House runs through June 10 with a closing party at 6 p.m.

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