Khmer art grows wings for Hong Kong flight

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Twenty paintings by Seckon will be exhibited at Hong Kong’s Rossi & Rossi Gallery from May 21. Heng Chivoan

Twenty works of art created by local legend Leang Seckon under the unifying theme Growing Wings will be exhibited at Hong Kong’s Rossi & Rossi Gallery on May 21.

One of his pieces – titled Reborn Sunflowers – will be sold and the proceeds will go towards supporting World Heritage Sites in Ukraine via the World Monuments Fund (WMF).

Founded in 1965, WMF is the world’s leading independent organisation devoted to safeguarding the world’s most treasured places in order to enrich people’s lives and build mutual understanding across cultures and communities.

The non-profit organisation is headquartered in New York City with affiliate offices in Cambodia, India, Peru, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

Since over 30 years, WMF is dedicated to building the capacities of national heritage professionals and practitioners in Cambodia and in particular at the Angkor Archaeological Park, where it addresses fundamental preservation issues at four different temples including Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Phnom Bakheng and Ta Som.

“Teacher Seckon wishes to donate the proceeds of the sale of a painting to the Ukrainian refugees and to the WMF.

“At the moment we are trying to promote the sale of the painting. Ideally, the painting could be stored at WMF’s Cambodia office in Siem Reap and in other countries too but the details are still under discussion,” Pok Marina – a curator and the person who initiated the charitable partnership – tells The Post.

Seckon is a veteran Cambodian artist known for his mixed-media pieces that combine ancient and modern Cambodian stories using elements from Khmer cultural and religious traditions.

He says he decided to donate a painting in order to raise funds to help refugees from the war in Ukraine after seeing news reports about the terrible situation going on there.

Anyone is welcome to bid on the painting – both organisations and individual collectors – but Seckon says that deep down in his heart he’d prefer it if some kind of community organisation or public museum purchased it and displayed it in a place where anyone could go and see it.

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Leang Seckon with his painting titled Star Catcher in the background. Heng Chivoan

“I often wonder why, when most people love something, they try to keep it private or hide it so that it only can be enjoyed by themselves. For me, I could almost say everything that I love I want to share with the world. I’ll give it to a museum if they don’t sell it, because loads of people will see it and I’d take pride in that.

“That’s just what I would love it to be, but it doesn’t matter anyways – as long as the piece is sold then we will have the funds to help the Ukrainian people,” the 52-year-old artist says.

The 20 paintings that make up the Growing Wings exhibition represent three years of Seckon’s creative output, having first started on them in 2019. He’s already exhibited a few of them previously, but this show is a much larger event since he’s displaying the entire series of paintings together for the first time.

They will be available for viewing at the Rossi & Rossi Gallery in Hong Kong starting May 21, 2022 and the exhibition then runs for two months.

Due to complications with travelling to Hong Kong related to their strict Covid-19 policies, Seckon was only able to send his paintings there and won’t be able to visit the gallery himself.

Before taking his artwork to another country, Seckon wanted to show some of the paintings here in Cambodia and Marina helped arrange an exhibition that includes 12 of the series, which opened at the British Ambassador's Residence at the beginning of April.

“A few months ago, I met Seckon by chance in an alley near Backyard Cafe and he invited me to his studio and showed me his latest artworks and asked me to help him show the pieces commissioned from Hong Kong to the Phnom Penh public before shipping them abroad, because we never know if any of them are going to be sold or come back,” Marina says.

Seckon says that if there was enough space he would have loved to exhibit all 20 of the paintings, but due to limited wall space he could only select 12 of them to hang at the British Ambassador's Residence. Marina helped select which 12 of the 20 would be shown.

“I think it is going to be so great that students – especially from the Royal University of Fine Arts – will come and have a look and be inspired. Ever since we first met, [Seckon] and I have talked about peace and war, harmony, the meaning of art, all sorts of things – and we’ve been exchanging messages daily since then. It is a great honour for me to be able to contribute to his exhibition,” Marina says.

The title of the 12 painting British Ambassador's Residence exhibition is Star Catcher – which is also the title of one of the dozen works on display. That one was chosen in particular because Marina loves it, says Seckon, and it’s also related to the personal journey he’s been on that he wants to share with those who attend the exhibition.

Seckon says that Star Catcher and the rest of his artworks don’t have any precise or intended meaning behind them because if you look at the painting you’ll see a lake, river, jungle and temple, all of which relate to his “sad life story”, which motivated him to try and catch the shooting star of success.

According to Seckon, he’s lived through several eras of Khmer civilisation in just a few decades. When he was a little boy he was running from Pol Pot’s soldiers and living with a constant fear of death. Then he was a buffalo boy who worked under the hot sun and in the cold rain with only one set of clothing to his name. Later he survived a harrowing experience when he was caught in a flood and almost drowned.

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Leang Seckon chats with Pok Marina at his studio. Heng Chivoan

“My early life was a bit hard,” Seckon says with intentionally droll understatement. “But at the end of the day all of the experiences that come our way are all for a purpose. The hardships, the burdens, the fear, the wounds – they are all important lessons and have been good teachers in my life.”

Seckon says that today he’s the type of person who confronts trouble when he faces it without running away and instead digs in and makes a stand in order to find a solution before he’ll consider walking away.

“You can see [in Star Catcher] that there’s a lot of beautiful scenery. The hut that I used to live in has turned into a temple. And all the land, the water and nature are very fruitful and glamorous in appearance – I portray them that way now because all those lessons I survived were like catching hold of stars to me. I reached out my hand and grabbed them,” he says.

He also says that as an artist he needs to be a fighter for peace and not provoke conflicts. For example, he uses his art to comment on politics but his politics are about unity and harmony rather than things that are intended to cause strife.

“Life is a bumpy road and I believe every person goes through different hardships in life that are both unique to them and common to humanity, but it’s your individual perspective that can truly motivate you to rise above those things and do better – though most people don’t,” says Seckon.

Seckon notes that because he doesn’t know much English, he’s never really looked into past artists’ work that closely, but he’s turned that curse into a blessing because he can take pride in the fact that his works of art are his original ideas that are authentically unique to him rather than heavily influenced by others.

He says he takes his inspiration and influence from his immediate surroundings, but lately he’s been excited that younger artists have been coming to him for advice and to get inspiration from his work that leads them to ideas of their own rather than them attempting to copy him.

“This has clearly shown that my work has led them to think of something new – not to copy what I have already produced – and that to me is the definition of success. That’s why all these paintings exist, aside from my having had a good time creating every single one of them.

“They exist because I love to share with the world my inner struggle to create and the triumph of creation that results,” says Seckon.