Just as the mythical Apsaras bring thumb and index finger together in a gesture known as ‘falling fruit’, so do garment workers use the same fingers to pick up a needle that helps them earn an income to support their families.
A new exhibition in Phnom Penh focuses on these garment workers, viewing them as today’s Apsaras.
Opening on February 22 at The Plantation, The New Apsaras explores the ecological and social impact of the garment industry.
The exhibition is a critical and creative discussion on fashion, addressing the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry and the issue of mass overconsumption.
Miguel Jeronimo, a Phnom Penh-based Portuguese photographer and the event’s curator, told The Post that the aim is to creatively raise awareness, inspire and educate about the cheap unfair labour in Cambodia and how each individual can make a difference.
“Our goal is to educate people on the beauty of reusing, recycling and reclaiming old materials into works of art,” the artist says.
Jeronimo, who will be exhibiting his work at the event, points out that Cambodia’s biggest exports are garments, most of which are sold to fast fashion companies in Europe and the US.
About 700,000 workers, 90 per cent of them women, are employed by the industry.
“However, those workers will never be able to afford the kind of clothes they make with their hands because they earn an average salary of $183 per month. That’s how they support their families, with her fingers and a needle.
“On the other hand, Apsaras are very prominent in Khmer culture. These semi-goddesses are dance masters and are considered a sign of fortune,” says Jeronimo.
Jeronimo says that one of Apsaras’ most iconic gestures is the way they press thumb and index fingers together and gently move their hand. This is reminiscent of a tailor holding her needle, which, in this context, becomes a quasi-sacred movement that impacts the lives of millions.
“The exhibition pays homage to the garment workers, the new Apsaras of Cambodia, the ones that hold the country together one stitch at a time,” Jeronimo says.
Jeronimo, who is a prolific exhibitor, recently held an exhibition on Cambodia’s relation with waste (Plastic Kingdom: Different Views on Waste and Ecology in Cambodia).
His latest presentation, Jungle on My Mind, focused on portraits and close-ups of local tailors posing as Apsaras or making gestures inspired by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.
The New Apsaras will feature other artists, local and international, working with different mediums.
Nicolas Grey will present his trademark style of comics that satirically address modern culture. Grey will be exploring how fashion trends affect people’s desires and needs of social acceptance.
The ethical clothes brand Tonle Design will contribute with some wall hangings made with scrap materials they collect from factories, applying their zero waste policy to intricate textile artworks.
Local experimental fashion designer Shanghai Chang has prepared two dresses with discarded materials for the occasion.
Meanwhile, KWN23 from the Homeless Artists Collective will show his signature graffiti style painted on kramas – a reminder that there are other ways to make “cool” fashion using local materials instead of mass-produced garments bought from multinational corporations.
The art and activist collective Primary Voice will showcase a series of photos taken inside big garment factories to show the reality inside the industry.
Khmer painter Rena Chheang will propose a more lyrical rendition of a portrait of a local tailor within paintings of patterns used in traditional fabrics.
Local illustrator Pich Rattanak will exhibit modern versions of Apsaras, a reminder that this mythical figure continues to inspire youth to create art based on Cambodian imagery and culture instead of mindlessly following international trends.
In total, about 10 artists and organisations will be represented in the exhibition.
Jeronimo says humans are desperate for the latest piece and under immense pressure to keep up with current trends, leading companies to churn out new garments at an insane rate.
“The New Apsaras is an inspirational and educational fashion show introducing upcycled clothes, re-inventing one-of-a-kind pieces to show that garments deserve a second chance,” says Jeronimo.
“It is a funky, grunge collection made from scrap materials with a street-wear edge and gender-fluid feeling. One step at a time, we are shining the spotlight on one of the most polluting industries,” says Jeronimo.
To open the exhibition, Elliss Jaie and students from Raffles International College will hold More Than Human, an experimental activist fashion show where scrap materials meet cool street-wear trends and where recycling turns hip.
Jaie, a teacher at Raffles International College, is expert at designing clothes through upcycling.
Jeronimo says they started by visiting garment businesses with an ethical approach that gives employees good working conditions.
“For example, we visited Fairsew and interviewed some of the tailors to understand their stories. Some of them worked before in big factories and knew from the inside how hard the job is and for such low wages.
“From there, we slowly built up the event, with me talking to artists and inviting them to contribute to the exhibition and with Jaie preparing clothes with the students and diving deeper into ways to help the environment and the people when we buy and wear clothes,” says Jeronimo.
The opening reception for The New Apsaras starts at 5pm on February 22. More Than Human starts at 7pm the same day. For more information about The New Apsaras, follow Miguel Jeronimo on Instagram at migueljeronimophotography or call (+855) 10 298 091.