From plastic bags and straws to duck egg shells, Rieam Monisilong’s recycled artworks are far from rubbish, writes Mom Kunthear
Where other people see nothing more than a pile of rubbish, Rieam Monisilong’s imagination runs wild. He sees the scales of a fish, the hair of a mermaid or the hands of a baby.
People give him strange looks when he’s rooting around in garbage bins, looking for materials to help create his next work of art, but Mr Monisilong, whose nickname is “Mr Trash”, doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
The 34-year-old artist has loved painting since the age of 12. By 17, he was helping his cousin draw art on pagoda walls.
But ten years ago, disaster struck. He lost the use of two fingers in an accident involving the machine he and his mother would use to sell sugar cane juice in Siem Reap.
Despite the setback, Mr Monisilong was undeterred and began volunteering for the Khmer Independent Life Team in 2009, a registered charity which works to provide shelter, healthcare and free education to vulnerable young people, including training in handicrafts.
“At the NGO, I learned how to make dead leaves into paper. It was a success,” he said.
The next day, he collected some kitchen leftovers, including the shells of duck eggs and some vegetables, and used those to make a picture.
“Each day I started to create some kind of artwork from garbage,” he said.
Mr Monisilong recalls how the smell of burning rubbish in his hometown would turn his stomach.
It was then he realised he could do something far better with the garbage than burn it.
Standing in an apartment under construction in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, the young artist is surrounded by his works of art.
He flips through an album of pictures made from materials including fibrous sugar cane waste, plastic bags, clothes, and pieces of wood. Mr Monisilong points to a canvas of three fish, the first he made.
He was inspired after catching a fish to eat and finding plastic inside its stomach when he cut it open.
“This is the piece of work most people know me for and also where I got my nickname Mr Trash,” he said.
“I had the idea to do this picture of three fish with plastic in their mouths, swimming in plastic water. I wanted to show everyone how garbage can destroy our environment, our health and our country’s beauty.”
Fish and mermaids feature prominently in his work, as does the Angkor Wat of his native Siem Reap province and pastoral images of women sewing or working in rice fields.
Despite learning some professional painting skills in the pagodas with his cousin, and his training at the NGO, much of the techniques he uses were self-taught, through YouTube videos.
Mr Monisilong explains how every piece of work he creates is a one-off.
“I want my pictures to be valuable when I am gone, so that’s why I make only one of every picture. If a buyer asks me to recreate a picture, I refuse,” he said.
The price of his small pictures is between $10 and $25, while the biggest go for between $1,000 and $1,500.
Mr Monisilong worked as an artist full-time between 2009 and 2013, but was struggling to make ends meet, so abandoned his passion in favour of farming for a brief stint.
“I stopped my lovely work for a while because my wife, parents and friends did not support me and I was unable to make a living,” he said.
He tried his best to cultivate vegetables and sell them at markets, but the family’s livelihood improved little, because the profit on produce was so low.
Before long, he was back to the garbage bins and his true calling.
Mr Monisilong still remembers how people would look at him as if he were crazy when he started going through rubbish at a local market. It is no different now that he lives in Phnom Penh.
“I am not shy and I never worry about what people think of me when I am collecting rubbish. They don’t know me. They call me Mr Trash,” he said while laughing. “But I like that name.”
Chanty, a food and drinks vendor near the White Building, said she was taken aback when Mr Monisilong first came to her shop looking for rubbish.
I wondered who he was and why he was picking up duck egg shells and bits of old sugarcane,” she said. “Honestly, I thought he was crazy when I first saw him because of his moustache and beard.”
One day Ms Chanty walked past the artist’s workplace and put two and two together.
“I admire his creativity for using rubbish to make beautiful pictures. Since I’ve known what he does, I’ve been dividing up my waste and keeping things separate for him so he can come and get them whenever he wants,” she said.
Mr Monisilong has attempted to teach his skills to children, but most turn their noses up at making art from rubbish.
“I still want to share my knowledge with the next generation or with anyone else who wants to learn about making art for free,” he said.
“My dream is to one day create a robot from garbage. I have no more plans to abandon this work, even though I still don’t earn enough to support my family.”
Mr Monisilong sells his artwork online, and exhibits it in several bars and restaurants.
As committed as he is to his art, his family’s security does weigh heavy on his mind.
“I have one wish. That is to own a house for my family and give them a safe place to live,” he said.
“I do not think I am a strange person. I just want to do something new.
“I want everyone in the world to understand what a serious problem garbage really is.”