Environmentalism and social issues tackled with abstract art

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Chhoeun Channy’s vivid and colourful paintings depic endangered birds interacting with objects in abstract realism. Photo supplied

Young Cambodian artist Chhoeun Channy is hoping to inspire his audience to pay more attention to Cambodia’s many social and environmental problems through his latest exhibition Out of Control.

His collection of 13 vivid and colourful paintings, depicting endangered birds interacting with objects in abstract realism, opens to the public on Monday in the gallery of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra in the heart of the capital.

Channy, a 31-year-old artist from Battambang province, was supported by local art organisation ReCreation in the curation of his exhibition. He considers the three-month showcasing of his work in the luxurious gallery as a good opportunity to reach a wide audience of both visitors and locals.

“My feelings and thoughts are portrayed in these 13 paintings from my Out of Control exhibition. They carry educational messages about social issues and environmental problems faced by both humans and animals in Cambodia – from alcoholism, cigarette addiction and environmental destruction,” he said.

The painter was born in Sangkae district’s Tuol Lveang village in Battambang province, with his hometown famous for producing many successful visual and performing artists.

Channy’s father himself is a traditional Khmer musician.

Channy recalled that as a boy, lacking art supplies, his favourite thing to do was to draw in the dirt with a stick. But though drawing and painting was where his artistic talents lay, Channy’s father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps.

“My journey to become a visual artist has taken a few twists and turns. My father is a traditional Khmer musician and he wanted me to study his skills with him. He wished for me to continue his legacy, but I could not. I personally just like to listen to the traditional Khmer music, but I did not want to become a musician myself. I don’t have any talent in handling musical instruments,” he said. “I couldn’t fulfil my father’s wish, so I explained and sought his approval to study what I’ve loved since I was a child – drawing and painting.”

Seeing the potential in his son, Channy’s father sent him to local non-profit art school Phar Ponleu Selpak in 2006 to be formally taught painting.

It is through his art that Channy said he channelled his interest in social issues.

“Before I became deeply involved in art, I was not interested in social issues, but I found painting an eye-opening process for me. When I started to paint, I could feel myself changing in a more caring and positive way,” he said. “Thanks to art, I’ve turned into a person who pays more attention to social issues. I’ve grown to be a person who is keen to know more about animals and the environment. I can feel myself caring about these things more than ever.”

Now, Channy – who made his solo exhibition debut in 2016 at a gallery in Siem Reap town – said that his Out of Control exhibition has been borne out of this interest in environmentalism, combined with his frustrations about Cambodia’s social ills like drug and alcohol addiction.

Among the paintings of vibrant and multi-coloured birds in abstract scenarios is Drunk – Bee Eater depicting a bird struggling to fly because it’s stuck in glue in the desert.

Red Line Peacock shows a male peacock leaning down to help a female peacock who is tangled in red, bloody string. Another, Deception, shows three prinia birds battling each other for a can ring-pull, while a fourth bird struggles to fly away from a tree entangled in red string and glue.

“In some of my works, I painted birds along with their names to introduce endangered species to the audience. I hope it can help remind the young generation about these beautiful animals on earth,” Channy said.

“There are 13 paintings for the exhibition, which will last three months starting from Sunday,” he added, saying that his work is on sale for between $1,600 and $7,500.

While earning a living is important for Channy, he says that raising awareness of environmental issues is just as vital to his project.

“After all the famous artists that this gallery has hosted in previous months, it’s an honour for me to take over this exhibition and display my work in this dedicated art space at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. Painting has always been a source of happiness for me. I like to arouse attention through my work – it pushes me to create even more. I hope this exhibition will raise public awareness about our society and our environment.” Chhanny said.

Out of Control opens on Monday at the gallery of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeetra and runs until October. Admission is free to the public.