Through Drawings, Artist Celebrates City’s Gay Community

Kong Dara created his latest exhibit specifically for the venue Strange Fruit Cambodia, a cafe, bar and art gallery that opened its doors earlier this year and has quickly found its place in Phnom Penh’s LGBTQ community.

With a furry blue apple as its logo and walls dressed with works mostly by gay artists, the venue down an alley off Street 19 hosted a fashion show during Pride Cambodia 2015 and the group exhibit “I AM WHAT I AM,” both in May.

Kong Dara's drawing of Sopheap Chuk in the exhibition 'Open Mind' (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Kong Dara’s drawing of Sopheap Chuk in the exhibition ‘Open Mind’ (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Dara’s highly erotic exhibit, “Open Mind,” which runs from August 3 to September 25, is a celebration of both the new venue and the city’s gay scene in general, featuring a collection of six portraits, 12 yellow colored-pencil drawings of “strange fruits” and two large—and explicit—images drawn with marker directly on the walls.

“This is original. It can’t be reproduced,” the 25-year-old artist said of a drawing behind the bar that depicts two naked men in a passionate embrace. “I talked to [a] friend [and] he wanted to buy, but I couldn’t sell it because it was on the wall.”

Prominent members of the city’s gay community, like Sopheap Chuk, owner of Space Hair—a hair salon by day and gay bar by night—are featured in the drawn portraits in the exhibit.

But Mr. Dara is most attached to the yellow pencil drawings on white paper, which depict reimagined fruits and vegetables— unnatural coloring, hairs sprouting from the fruit, unusual size or curvature—that he says represent what it’s like to be gay in Phnom Penh.

The series not only “breaks the rules” of what we expect fruit to look like, he said, but the yellow-on-white color scheme also requires viewers to get up close to the drawings to see what’s in front of them.

“People are thinking, ‘What is this?’ so they have to come close to see it,” Mr. Dara said. “This is the feeling that I want—it’s more intimate.”

Getting close in order to understand what you are looking at, he said, reflects the embrace he has felt from other gay men in the city.

“This is the way that I can tell [others] about the gay community,” he said.

Un Veasna, 35, the co-founder of Strange Fruit, said the venue was open to all artists and patrons, but would continue to give preference to gay artists given its target clientele.

“Because this is the gay place, so gay priority,” Mr. Veasna said.

“I want to give [space to] the new generation who have talent, like [Mr. Dara]; he has the talent, but he has no place to show,” he said. “I want to show people that they are talented.”

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