Cheanick on the rules of life and art

Nov Cheanick poses alongside Sky On The Ground at Tini this week.
Nov Cheanick poses alongside Sky On The Ground at Tini this week. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Battambang-based artist Nov Cheanick, 28, was born in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand but moved to Battambang as a young child. This week he is in Phnom Penh for the opening of his exhibition, A Small Part, featuring a selection of new and old mixed-media paintings on canvas at Tini, a coffee shop and art space in Tuol Tompoung. The Phare Ponleu Selpak alumnus has previously exhibited his contemporary paintings both in Cambodia and France. He sat down with Post Weekend’s Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about life as an artist and the philosophy that guides his work.

How does Battambang influence your work?

I don’t know why, but I tried to come and work in Phnom Penh, but never feel the same as I do in Battambang. I don’t know if it’s because of nature, because of the environment, because of people, but it makes it easier for me to work. It’s like a trusting [feeling].

When did you first start painting?
When I was 5 years old. Ever since I was a child I remember I loved to paint. I would [draw] on the ground. When we came back from the refugee camps everyone was poor, we don’t have paper, we don’t have books to write, so I would just paint on the ground like you would [draw in the sand] on the beach. When I was in school I would draw on all of my books. Nobody introduced me to painting, I just loved to paint and draw.

Your paintings are dominated by somber tones. Why is that?
Most of my paintings use these colours – greys and dark greys – but one new one here [titled Sky On The Ground] is so blue. When painters think about painting they’ll imagine the sky in the back, the ground [beneath it] and the trees [in between]. It’s like their brain is blocked, their mind is blocked. For me I say f—it – I want to put the sky on the ground. The world is like that, so why do we have to think the sky is always up?

Have you always been a rule-breaker?
Yeah, my last exhibition was titled Break the System. If you break the system you can see something differently. Old people will tell me: ‘Oh, you can’t do that’ . . . But for me I do what I can. This is possible for you [as a foreigner] but it’s not possible for me maybe. I’m not breaking the rules of someone or something; I’m just breaking them myself for myself.

So, do you have rules for yourself?
Yes I do. You’re born on this earth and you do what you want [and] you do what you can. But when you do that, you use your sense of right and wrong, to not destroy something or someone. But for the rules of painting, you learn that you must paint in a certain way; but for me, there’s no rules to paint. You paint what you want and what you feel.

But don’t you have learn the rules before you break them?
Yes, I think so. When I painted the first time I didn’t know any rules, so I don’t know if I broke the rules or not. When I was in school I never finished my paintings because my life was always in the dirt so I was so disgusting when I went to school and I made my paintings dirty. So my teacher would say ‘you have to be careful!’ – so I never finished them. But then I looked back and said [to myself] that even if I don’t do it well, I have to complete it, so I could be proud of what I did. When you break, you break with the flow. So let it be, but don’t let it be.

Nov Cheanick’s A Small Part runs through November 3 at Tini, #57E0 Street 450. This interview was edited for length and clarity.