For 30 days, contemporary art lovers in Phnom Penh will have a chance to admire the artwork of an emerging Cambodian artist, who is known for combining traditional with contemporary. Koem Keo Socheat’s latest exhibition showcases a series of paintings aimed at answering questions regarding “tradition” and “sin” which she has been curious about since her childhood. The young artist also wants the audience to decipher her art in their own way, she tells Taing Rinith.
In Phnom Penh’s Meta House gallery ten watercolour canvases hang on the wall, while a sculpture of a broken half-earth stands in the middle of the hall. The paintings display various objects, from an upside-down picture of a girl’s sad face with her hand covering her mouth, to a brown and orange globe.
By limiting her work to a few nostalgic colours, including ocher, sepia, black and white, Socheat gives a pretty depiction of desolation with the use of faded lines and strong strokes. According to the 27-year-old, she paints with natural colours combined with grocerys from her kitchen – her signature move.
Socheat says the inspiration for her artwork comes from a personal question that she has asked herself since she was a little girl. The question, which also happens to be the title of the exhibition, is “Why do I…?”
“All throughout my life, I have been asking myself so many questions about reasoning, and many of them still have no answers, especially those concerning our Cambodian traditions,” Socheat says.
“For example, when I was a young girl, my parents and grandparents asked me — or should I say forced me — to go to the pagoda with them. No one ever told me why I should go to the pagoda,” she adds.
One of her biggest questions is surrounding the concept of bab, or “sin”, which her elders always used to warn her and other children about. For a long time, she did not understand why so many things are considered sins in the Buddhist community she lived in.
“Touching a Buddhist monk is a sin if you are a woman, and so is not paying attention during sermons and eating before the monks,” she explains. “The elders keep mentioning “sins”, but they never explained to me why they are so,” Socheat says.
As she grew up, Socheat found answers for all of these questions, but at the same time, so many more questions have emerged for her, especially involving religion and tradition in Cambodia.
“These paintings are my answers to many of my “why” questions,” Socheat adds. “But, at the same time, I also want people to look at my paintings and be inspired to start exploring themselves and keep finding answers to their own questions.”
Born in 1993 in Kampot, Socheat graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2018. After her graduation, she spent a full year working in her tiny apartment, surrounded by her paintings and cats. A stray cat she adopted became the inspiration for her first solo exhibition – Eyes of Mercy – which was held in March.
As well as making her own paint, she has also been admired for her strong brush strokes and poetic watercolour style.
Nicolas Mesterharm, the founding director of Meta House, says Socheat represents the new generation of Cambodia female artists, through her talent, curiosity and determination to overcome barriers.
“The first exhibition that she did was about cats, but I told her I wanted something more personal, and she did that,” Nicholas says. “I really love her paintings as a series. It is also very empowering to see a young Cambodian painter being so eager to speak about her life in such a beautiful way.”
Socheat’s exhibition is open to the public at Meta House until November 13.