New exhibition shares stories of farmers’ resolve

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The Treasure exhibition by Neak Sophal tells stories of farmers’ survival through hardships. SUPPLIED

Neak Sophal, known for her distinctive photographic style – which regularly employs performative portraiture to illustrate the social realities of Cambodian women, the working class, and marginalised communities – will hold her latest exhibition at FT Gallery from 17 September 2022.

Treasure introduces a new body of work consisting of 24 portraits and a video which document the lives and perseverance of farming families from three provinces in Cambodia. The artist would not reveal which provinces she had worked in.

“Treasure sounds valuable, everybody looks forward to having it, but at the same time in Khmer it means something which is not stable because it arrived by luck. This means people don’t work hard for it, but still want it to come to them,” she said.

In this new series, the artist depicts farmers, who appear to be mostly middle-aged women and men, standing and facing directly into the camera.

Each person reaches out their hands, presenting assorted items to the camera, including rice, fruit, frogs, animal dung, soil, and water. Their faces are obscured.

“The gesture makes it seem like they are showing, or even offering us, natural produce and objects,” she added.

Behind them is the striking presence of a horizontal strip of gold, which works to highlight the held objects. Here, the photographs’ main subject shifts from the people depicted to objects they present.

“The images share a similar aesthetic, but each tells a different story based on where they live and what challenges they are facing. Their identities are hidden because they are representing other farming communities that have similar issues,” Sophal told The Post.

Sophal, 33, from Takeo province graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. She has developed her distinctive style through performatively composed portraitures, commonly staged in collaboration with her subjects.

Her works often illuminate the ongoing struggles of and give voices to those who face marginalisation in Cambodian society.

Playing with the politics of identities and aesthetics, and informed by conceptual and political motivations, her subjects may or may not have their identities revealed. Sophal’s works often challenge social structures, highlighting the hidden memories and fear that animates people’s lives.

Active locally and internationally, she has participated in workshops and group and solo exhibitions in France, Sweden, the US, Japan, and Australia, including the Angkor Photo Festival (Cambodia), Spot Art (Singapore), Hong Kong International Photo Festival, Bangkok Photo Festival, Asian Eye Culture (Thailand), Voice of Tacitness Exhibition (China), Our City Festival (Cambodia), SurVivArt (Germany) and Photo Phnom Penh Festival.

To better understand the stories of the subjects of each photograph, captions confirm that the objects they are holding are vital to their livelihoods.

They are their food sources, their commodities and their harvests. Most of the stories sound quite banal, narrating rural lives with their repetitive routines, challenges, and complaints.

However, they also allude to precarious food stocks and depleted resources in the face of climate change and economic hardship.

The presence of land is strong and recurring in Sophal’s photographs. The “golden treasures” in the farmers’ hands often fall onto the ground, according to Katherine Brickell, an author and Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Brickell, the curator of the exhibition, said it seems to suggest their evasion, their gradual diminishment; they go back to the earth where they come from.

“On the other hand, the golden strip not only brings to the fore the ‘treasures’ being held, but at the same time demarcates the territories, the soil, the land upon which generations of their families depend,” she added.

For the project, Sophal travelled across the northern, central, and southern provinces of Cambodia, where she met with rural families to learn how they cope with environmental and economic challenges.

“It was easy to work with the farmers, although the hard part was explaining the project to them. It meant I had to build relationships with them and earn their trust,” she said.

“They are holding different objects from around their homes and fields that represent their lifestyles and their work,” she added.

Adopting a semi-ethnographic approach, the artist insists that the process of making this series, like her many other projects, is more important than the photographs which are produced.

For her, the process of people sharing their stories is the heart of the work. Indeed, when people tell their stories, they exercise their agency, according to the Brickell.

“Sophal believes that everyone has a story to tell, and in this case, calls our attention to the stories from the earth,” she said.

“In a no-dialogue video document, Sophal allows us to get a glimpse of the daily lives of the farmers in motion,” said Brickell, adding that “we hear the atmospheric sound of the villages, the landscapes, their activities, and the objects falling from their hands onto the ground.”

The video begins with a scene of lush golden rice paddies and ends with a man walking over recently harvested land towards the horizon, without a clear purpose.

Treasure calls people to listen to the stories of individual farmers. However, by concealing their respective identities, the photographs somehow transform them into a collective – although not homogeneous – community of farmers, who are ultimately the backbone of Cambodia’s food security and economy.

Despite this, they are among the most affected by climate change and economic instability.

In Treasure, the farmers confront the viewers as they stand on the land they cultivate. They present themselves as witnesses of change, of struggle and determination, of strength, and of the collective impact they bear.

“The actual living treasures in Sophal’s work are perhaps not the objects in the farmers’ hands but the farmers themselves, as honoured and highlighted by the organically-shaped golden masks on their faces,” Brickell told The Post.

“This exhibition is not just about making their voices heard so they can share and release their burdens. We will return to the villages, give back their portraits, and exhibit their photographs in each location. This will allow the subjects to gather and discuss their lives with each other,” said Sophal.