Young Artist Injects Fresh Ideas into Khmer Tradition

Hanging on the walls of Java Gallery this month are several brightly-colored ‘Yoan’—squares of fabric that hang in Cambodian homes to protect the inhabitants from bad spirits.

The ‘Yoan’ themselves are just plain cloth, explained their creator, Leng Seckon. It is the ‘Mun,’ or the Buddhist scripts and de­signs that adorn them that turn these ordinary squares into something holy.

Imparting magic properties to ordinary materials is a skill that Leng Seckon knows all about. In his exhibition ‘Apey Mutrak,’ he explores the Buddhist tradition in hangings and collages made from materials ranging from the prosaic to the precious.

‘Apey Mutrak’ is the name given to the Buddha’s blessings of courage and peace, and is symbolized by the pose of an outstretched hand with palm facing forward. The work Leng Seckon has assembled under this title is a contemporary take on the combined Hindu and Buddhist traditions that have fused together to form today’s Khmer culture.

Leng Seckon said he dedicated his first solo show to religion as a way of examining the origins of modern Cambodian identity. “I made Buddha the main theme because I want to use it to talk about issues of modern life. The pictures are about the history of today’s culture.”

The pieces that make up Apey Mutrak tell of Buddha’s journey through the ages. From Angkor Wat to the modern pagoda, the different poses, features and styles of the Buddha are des­cribed.

Although his subject is highly traditional, Leng Seckon’s artistic method could hardly be less so. Combining a bold, stylized painting tech­nique with collage and stitching, his means of exploring the antique Buddha figures are arrestingly modern.

“I wanted my work to stay within the traditional Khmer style, but also to be modern, up to date,” he said.

The materials Leng Seckon uses in his Buddha collages are all in some way associated with worship, he said. “I used pieces of mosquito netting and fabric from monks’ robes to give the collages texture, and to suggest the peace and safety the Buddha gives,” he said. “I also typed passages from dharmas [religious texts] in Sanskrit, Bali and Khmer and made photocopies of dharma as written in stone.”

In addition, Cambodian money and gold leaf are liberally applied to Leng Seckon’s canvases, “be­cause these are what people use to make offerings to Buddha in the pagoda.”

“I used money and gold to symbolise the offerings believers make in the pagoda, and to show that my art is dedicated to the Bud­­dha,” he said.

The resulting patchwork gives the pieces a layered effect that suggests the gradual build-up of history, and echoes the accumulated influences on Cambodian culture.

Perhaps the most surprising pieces in the exhibit make up Leng Seckon’s ‘modern Apsara’ series. Here the artist has taken Cam­bodia’s antique beauty queen and brought her into the modern era: Her traditional winning proportions are still there, but are composed of the blues, reds and golds of cigarette and beer advertisements.

“Apsara lived in ancient times, but I want to tell her about Cam­bodia today,” Leng Seckon ex­plained. “I want to show that we are the same Khmer people as back then, but in modern clothes.”

These pieces are unusual, and if it at times they might seem a little garish or inappropriate, Leng Seckon doesn’t seem to mind. As long as his work provokes a reaction, he feels satisfied. “It makes me very happy when people look at my work once, then look again and see something new,” he said, with infectious exuberance.

The 28-year-old has been a student of art for the best part of a decade, schooled in various traditional techniques at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. But many of the innovative ideas that distinguish his work today were self-taught.

“I always liked drawing, but growing up my family was very poor, and I couldn’t afford to buy  art materials,” he explained. “My aunt is a tailor, and one day I started to draw a picture in stitches, using her sewing machine.”

His method of stitching lines on canvas is one of his work’s most dis­­tinctive elements.

Another influence has been Leng Seckon’s collaboration with foreign artists working in Phnom Penh, most notably Chris Law­son, a US multi-media artist whom Leng Seckon credits with introducing him to the technique of collage. Leng Seckon is currently collaborating with Lawson on a book of collages to be published in the US later this year.

The fusion of Cambodian art with more glo­bal ideas is evident throughout Leng Seckon’s work, and is something the young artist feels passionately about.

“I want to make a new soup that Khmer people can eat, and foreigners like too,” he said.

Leng Seckon’s new artistic cuisine has succeeded in appealing to both Cambodian and international tastes. At the exhibition’s opening this week, Cambodians and expatriates mingled to ad­mire—and often to buy—the eighteen works on display.

Chang Rong, a graphic designer from Phnom Penh, was enthusiastic about Leng Seckon’s new take on traditional imagery as he stood before one brash, commercialized vision of an apsara group. “Cambodia has enough history already,” he said. “Now we need something fresh.”


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