Visiting Artist Draws Inspiration from Ordinary People’s Lives

One of the best ways to discover a country is through its street markets, Genevieve Marot says.

“It holds an incredible wealth of information on a culture.”

During her first visit to Phnom Penh two years ago, Marot took her sketchbook to a local market. “It was fascinating. All these fruits I didn’t know,” she recalled. “It was truly traveling, being elsewhere.” 

Here, people work in all kinds of small trades that no longer exist in France, said Marot, who is from Paris.

Many food sellers ended up in her watercolor and acrylic paintings now on exhibition at Java Cafe and Gallery in Phnom Penh. The collection, entitled Travel Diary, is Marot’s impressions of Cambodians she met—especially the market sellers and the street children she taught in an art class at the NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends.

In her work, people take up most of the space. Painted in colors of everyday life—bright, bold and muted at the same time—they seem caught in a private moment.

Food sellers’ faces reflect the long days sitting at the market, waiting for customers from mor­ning until night. The children look at you, or beyond you, with the eyes of people who have suffered too much hardship for their age.

And yet, there is nothing sad or somber about the paintings—just reality as ordinary people live it in Phnom Penh.

“Doing sketches is really a different way to travel,” said Marot. Visiting a country with a camera means capturing moments on film, being with a person just long enough to get a snapshot, she said. “A sketch involves sitting down, and having children come over to see what you’re doing,” she said. “It takes time.”

Maybe that’s why most people in Marot’s paintings seem to have forgotten about her and returned to their own thoughts.

In one painting, a woman is sitting behind her display of chickens, half hidden by the ones hanging from a beam, in wait but without impatience. In another, a young woman walks by, carrying on her head a huge pile of lotus hearts.

In a collage, children are staring, their faces solemn and wary. And in an acrylic, a boy is lost in the drawing he is finishing.

There also are watercolors of fishing boats—recollections of Mar­ot’s boat trip to Siem Reap—and an acrylic of a sugar cane seller met on a trip to Kompong Thom.

The watercolors were done on sketch paper. The large-size acrylics were painted on pages of Khmer newspapers, with some of the print script seeping through here and there. “The spirit of doing a travel diary is to work with whatever you can find in that country,” said Marot. Since she could not find that format of paper on the streets of Phnom Penh, she resorted to newspaper.

Travel diary is an art genre that has become quite popular in France, said Marot. In that type of book, an artist writes his thoughts and feelings about a country, and illustrates in sketches the people and places he visited.

“Travel diaries have an intimate side that probably intrigues [readers],” said Marot.

There now are two annual exhibitions of travel diaries in France, one in Brest and one in Clermont-Ferrand, she said. Marot has exhibited at both of them.

Her Cambodia travel diary will be published by Gallimard, one of France’s biggest publishers, toward the end of the year. This will be the first book for which she will have written the text, as well as done the illustrations, but not her first book project.

The exhibition at Java Cafe and Gallery runs through Feb 23.

 

 

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