As most people are aware, the Kingdom has very strict laws on the depiction of nudity when it’s done for prurient reasons, such as making pornography. These restrictions only apply, however, to circumstances where there is no artistic value or purpose to the nudity or sexual imagery aside from the profits gained from the display of obscene materials.
Unfortunately, despite that, the existing laws do often have the affect of discouraging artists of all sorts from taking the risk of using any imagery in their works that could be misconstrued as pornographic or obscene.
That makes the new series of 12 paintings by Heng Ravuth being shown in his exhibition My Self, My Body, My World even more powerful and attention-grabbing than otherwise, though it must be said that the manner in which the artist conveys his inner emotions using different poses and expressions is remarkable in any context because of the intricately layered and nuanced self-portraits he’s created.
Ravuth’s daring exhibition opened at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik Gallery on May 9, 2022 and will be on display for two months until it closes on July 9 this year.
“Some Cambodians think that nudity in paintings is really not a good thing to see and that it’s especially bad to show art like this publicly, but I happen to think differently. It’s human nature and no one can ever really cover it up or hide it because it’s a part of all of us. We should embrace that and be able to have the confidence to accept every part of each one of us. So I created this series of paintings in the hopes that people – particularly my fellow Cambodians – become familiar with this form of art.
“Nudity in art has existed in all countries since ancient times and we should learn to be open to these ideas. In fact it’s not even about private parts, that’s not what my paintings are focused on. I just want to show a different type of art to Cambodia that is actually found everywhere else and that people seldom ever see here,” Ravuth tells The Post.
By painting nude figures of the human body, in this case his own, the artist says he wanted to talk about the inner-feelings that can be expressed through parts of one’s body or through physical body language.
He says he can’t really recall his inspiration to come up with this series of paintings because it’s just such a commonplace theme in museums and galleries the world over and the majority of great artists have nudes in their bodies of work at some point.
He does point to one formative year when he took a photography course at the Popil Photo Gallery with Stephane Janin during his years studying painting at the Royal University of Fine Arts. During the course, he began to experiment with taking photographic portraits of himself in the nude and right away he knew that he’d like to do something similar with his primary artistic medium of painting.
“I believe that by then I started to understand this type of work and understand myself better, and ever since I’ve sort of been working on this “self-body” theme in my work,” he says.
Ravuth prefers painting with acrylics on canvas and he says he finds it difficult to explain his works fully in words, but his basic idea is that body language can deliver more meaning than words actually can much of the time and that’s what he’s attempting to capture in the series of 12 paintings, which is why he considers it irrelevant or at best incidental whether the subject of a given painting in his series has their private parts visible or covered.
“People see what they want to see, though. If they have dirty thoughts in their head then they’ll imagine dirty things where none actually exist aside from those that they brought with them,” he says.
At the May 9 opening, large crowds were in attendance at STP gallery to catch the show – local art collectors, expat artists, young people and students along with all sorts of other folks curious about the paintings.
The more cultured patrons present at the gallery went from canvas to canvas, talking animatedly to each other and pointing out interesting elements or details in each work. Those less accustomed to gallery exhibitions were a little lost at times and it showed, but thankfully nothing disastrous or scandalous occurred.
Others were excited to have a chance to chat with Ravuth about his art and ask him questions – an experience they’d never enjoyed in any other museum or gallery setting in many cases.
“As far as the local response to my art goes, I haven’t had anyone coming up to me saying anything negative or any bad stuff about my paintings, not to me personally anyways or in a face-to-face situation. But who knows what they are thinking silently to themselves,” he says, laughing. “Foreigners, they do come up to me and let me know what they think all the time, as is their tendency, and they say that this work is very interesting and most say they love it.”
The 12 paintings of the series are painted on canvases of three different sizes, with the smallest paintings being 70cm x 100cm, the medium-sized 90cm x 120cm and the largest are 120cm x 150cm, creating an interesting and varied mix of scales and allowing for the possibility of mixing and matching the different sizes in interesting configurations when they are hanging on the gallery walls.
When you get up close and observe the paintings, right away you’ll notice that within the larger macro image of the painter’s nude or semi-nude self-portrait there is a repeated motif of tiny little human forms that are arranged to form the “big picture” in each work out of these many small ones.
Ravuth says the larger figures are like a vessel that contains multitudes of different people or personas, most of which only surface momentarily or in tandem with many others, but in truth everyone’s personality or feelings are built from emotional fragments just as bodies are built from individual cells.
Each of these tiny-people that make up the whole are a literal depiction of an abstract or metaphorical – but no less true for it – state of inner turmoil that bubbles outwards from the inside.
“I think this really helps me to express my depression and my toxic feelings that sometimes I am just too apathetic or worn down to speak out about to other people and I just wanted to illustrate them via this work,” the 37-year-old artist says.
Ravuth believes that he was born to be an artist and he’s always kept the faith and continued to create new work, but there have been times in the past were he was discouraged by the unformed and unpolished state of the Khmer art scene, but he never stopped doing what he loves, which is painting.
“Painting these nudes really helped me discover more about myself and take further steps in my evolution as an artist. I’d like to say thank you to the younger generation of art lovers in Cambodia like Reaksmey, the curator of STP gallery, who helped us promote these works tirelessly and it has been absolutely wonderful to do this exhibition here at STP, which is also my very first at this gallery,” he says.
Ravuth says he doesn’t know what the future holds, but he has no intention to stop creating art and creating more art is what he is focusing on right now.
“I urge the readers of your newspaper, especially Khmer, to try and find some time to experience the arts whenever there is an exhibition like this one that is open and free for everyone. They should do this so that they can begin to understand the art of painting better. With greater understanding, they will enjoy an increased level of cultural sophistication and a broader perspective on the world,” Ravuth says.
He hasn’t considered whether he’ll pursue this subject further or not, but if he does then he says he’d like to develop some new techniques or approaches for it to keep things fresh, an extremely underrated practice these days.
“If I understand correctly, our society today, whenever we talk about art, the first thing that comes to the minds of most people is pure entertainment like singing and dancing. In fact, the foundations of art are also found in works by people who draw, sculpt and create pieces that are thoughtful rather than relentlessly joyful.
Warming to the topic, Ravuth’s speech takes on a new urgency and his words are punctuated by gestures that cut the air and broad expressions of world-weary exasperation and playful disdain that have been lying beneath his seemingly calm exterior the whole evening.
“Art isn’t always about escape and artists who make you face truths rather than distract you from them have a lot of important things to share with our society, or at least as much to share as do the people from the ‘entertainment industry’,” he says, employing the universal sign-language for the insertion of scare-quotes as he ends his mini-sermon.
STP Cambodia is located at YK Art House #13A St 830 in Phnom Penh. For more information on Ravuth’s exhibition, visit the gallery’s Facebook page: bit.ly/STPGalleryPP