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Monirith Chhea: Images of Cambodia

Images of Cambodia

by Monirith Chhea

I was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during the 1960's. I grew up at the wrong time in Cambodia. There were two classes during this period, the very rich and the very poor. When I was still a child, I wasn't aware of the class separation in my country, but I knew that I had many more things than some of the children with whom I played. Early on in my childhood, I began to notice much sadness in many of the adults around me. The revolution which occurred in my country between 1975 and the beginning of 1979 under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea was responsible for a million Cambodian people dying from starvation, overwork, torture, disease, and execution.

Childhood, by Monirith Chhea. Click to view more images. I learned quickly at age ten how to survive on my own because I was separated from my family in a labor camp and later in a refugee camp in Thailand. I was the first to make it to the refugee camp on my own as my family stayed behind for one more year in Cambodia. When I finally found my family again in the refugee camp, I was soon separated again when I was sponsored to live in California. Eventually my family left the refugee camp and immigrated to Canada.

Although I have now lived in the United States for more than ten years, the memories of Cambodia still haunt me and drive me to express myself through my paintings and drawings. My artwork often represents the atrocities of the revolution and war which I witnessed and survived in Cambodia during my childhood and adolescence. My paintings and drawings symbolize the starvation, sickness, and death which I faced in Cambodia but also express the beauty of the homeland I left behind.

While it is very difficult to make comparisons between my expressionistic style of painting and traditional Cambodian art, there are similarities which I have found. As I searched for literature dealing with Cambodian art, I came across a book on Angkor Wat, titled Angkor: The Hidden Glories, by Michael Freeman and Roger Warner. Although the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat reveal a world of spiritual representations, they also reveal depictions of everyday life, as found in the bas reliefs which show Cambodians eating rice using their fingers. This reminds me of one of my paintings titled Peasants Gathering Rice, which I completed in 1990. This is one of my large scale paintings which I created from early childhood memories of happier times when I would travel with my father to the Cambodian countryside to visit the farm we once owned. I always noticed the peasants working in therice fields and wanted to show the beauty of the land and the importance Cambodians place on rice as their main staple. In this painting as in most of my oil paintings, I used bold colors and brushstrokes of thick paint called impasto, to create a textural rhythm in order to introduce a more intense feeling in the work.

What I have found often in my artwork is an outlet to be able to deal with the difficult and painful memories of my childhood and adolescence. In one of my early charcoal drawings, completed in 1988, I drew a self portrait with a Khmer Rouge soldier standing menacingly above me. I titled this work Childhood, and feel that it is one of my most powerful pieces. As I am sitting in a bleak and cold place, I am terrified of my fate and all I can do is cling to my bare and beaten legs. The faceless soldier stands above me as he powerfully grips his hand into a tight fist. The shadow which his body casts forms a demon-like image. This self-portrait is very symbolic of the Khmer Rouge's power and control over me and reminds me of the helpless feeling I had during this part of my life.

In one of my large oil paintings titled Boys in the Field, completed in 1991, I depicted young emaciated boys treated like slaves in the labor camp. This painting represents the male children who were part of the group of Cambodian people from the cities who were labelled "New People" and were subjected to very cruel working conditions and starvation. The young boys in the painting carry heavy bags of rice which force their thin bodies to twist in agony. The boy in the foreground only wears pants and his ribs stick out as he is near starvation. While I depicted the ugliness and brutality of the times in the foreground, in the background there is evidence of hope with the immense blue sky and the large palm trees in the distance.

In my small oil painting titled Re-Education, finished in 1993, I created an image of skulls representing the tortured and murdered Cambodian people. As they are in the "Killing Fields" all around Cambodia, they are a reminder of Pol Pot's hatred of the "New People". I used bright colors such as red and orange to surround the skulls to be symbolic of the blood which was shed at the Khmer Rouge's massacres.

I wanted to dedicate a painting to the suffering Cambodian people who lost so much during the Khmer Rouge regime and who are still struggling to survive after waking from a nightmare. In one of my largest oil paintings, Seven Women in the Field, completed in 1990, I painted a group of seven Cambodian women dressed in Khmer Rouge uniforms including black clothes with the red cotton cloth called "Krama" on their heads. They stand with their backs turned away from the viewer, holding hoes in their hands. The number seven represents the seven days of the week they have to work from sunrise to sundown. The large and bright sky looms in the background. The long red shadows behind the women represent their difficult struggle to endure the harsh working conditions which life has dealt them. In the background sit homes once occupied but now deserted and lifeless.

A thread running through my work which can be found are groups of people working in the fields or individuals expressing a variety of emotions. These are my memories ofthe "New People" during the Khmer Rouge regime. I often use red, yellow and orange colors in my work because I remember the hot, dry summers spent in the labor camp. During this time, summer was the most difficult season to survive because of the lack of food. Many people were unable to make it through this season and died from starvation. While I do not feel fortunate for having had to have gone through a brutal regime, I believe that it provided me with a profound appreciation for life and hope that people can learn from history and from the mistakes brought on by hatred and war.

Click here to view some samples of Monirith Chhea's work.

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