The careers and the often-times-tragic histories of Cambodia’s “siren singers” from the last 50 years have been honoured in a new exhibition of paintings by Cambodian Space Project founder Julian Poulson.
The exhibition highlighting the Cambodian women singers opens tonight at One Eleven Gallery in Siem Reap, and is titled, ‘Les Femmes Cambodgiennes de la Chanson.’
Singers portrayed in the paintings date back to the early beginnings of Cambodian pop music in the 1960s, when women singers such as as Chhoun Malay and Mao Sareth were stars.
Also reflected is the golden era of Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, a time “Of 45rpm record players and the oh-so-chic Norodom Sihanouk movie era,” according to Poulson.
Other paintings touch on the period to 2010 when singers such as Chhom Nimol and Kak Channthy were heard internationally.
“The portraits are ten canvases of Mao Sareth, Chhoun Malay, Him Sivorn, Pan Ron, Kak Channthy, Chhom Nimol, Houy Meas, Ros Sereysothea, the Sieng Sisters, So Savouen,” Poulson says.
“Then there’s a collage of Piseth Pilika, Piseth Pilikaand Pov Panhapich and Touch Srey Nich. I’m working on other icons such as Poev Vannary, but they’ll come later.”
He notes that many of the singers have one thing in common in their lives: tragedy.
“A third of the singers depicted met with grim ends,” he says. “The greatest of Cambodia’s torch singers of the Golden Era – Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Houy Meas – were all murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
“Houy Meas was the cherished voice of Radio Kampuchea, but met with a particularly violent death – rape and the mutilation of her body.”
He adds that recent times weren’t much safer for female singers either.
For example, on July 6, 1999, famed actress and singer Piseth Pilika was shot by an unknown gunman during a shopping excursion at Orussey Market in Phnom Penh, and her seven-year-old niece, Sarin Sereimean was also wounded.
Journalist Dominic Faulder wrote that the incident, “Sent an unprecedented wave of grief and disgust throughout the country… it generated more newsprint than Pol Pot’s death last year.”
Pilika’s spine was severed and she died on July 13. Her body was displayed in a wake at the School of Fine Arts, where she had taught ballet, and police estimated that on the first day more than 10,000 mourners gathered. The killing was never solved.
In a similar incident in October 2003, Cambodian singer Touch Sunnich and her mother were shot by four men on motorcycles after a shopping trip in Phnom Penh. Touch Sunnich was shot in the face and paralysed, becoming wheelchair-bound for life, and her mother was killed. That crime was also never solved.
According to the One Eleven Gallery’s press release, “Poulson’s paintings reflect these ‘shadows of darkness’ through the history and imagery of the women of song while also showing the absolute beauty and splendor of iconic divas and women who, at various times, have risen to become the sublimely beautiful voices of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Poulson himself became entwined in the tragic history of women singers when his beloved partner, former wife and Cambodian Space Project lead singer Kak Channthy, dubbed ‘the barefoot diva of the Cambodian rice fields’ was killed in March 2018 when an auto rickshaw she was travelling in was hit by a car in downtown Phnom Penh.
Her sad loss makes it difficult at times for Poulson to discuss aspects of the tragic history he himself explores in his paintings and writings, especially the reasons behind the violence.
“I think there’s still a problem that society is yet to deal with,” he says, “And that is essentially dealing with emotions of jealousy and notions of power and possession of another person, particularly with the kind of mindset that thinks another person’s life, especially (that of) a beautiful, glamorous singer with a public profile, can be nothing more than a trophy to be owned and fought over.
“But really, I don’t know, I don’t want to speculate, I just think it is a particularly sad and tragic history and I’m still devastated, and always will be, by the tragic loss of Channthy and the circumstances of her death too.”
But he adds that his acknowledgement of Cambodian women of song is an ongoing project.
He says, “We’re now working on things like a compilation album, a film, a touring concert and even a book that will feature historical notes in Khmer and English alongside this series of portraits.”
The Siem Reap launch also featured a mini musical concert introducing quirky Australian jazz drummer Louis Burdett who will join Poulson in performing a live score to the classic 1967 Cambodian movie ‘Sovanna Hong,’ Poulson was joined by double bassist Dan Davies and Joe Baarda on saxophone.