Social responsibility, environmentalism with Cambodian artist Chan Sophorn

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
More than 30 paintings and three wooden sculptures produced over the course of a decade by Chan Sophorn are finally on display for all to enjoy, with the artist aiming to raise awareness of the inseparable relationship between humans and nature. Photo supplied

A collection of more than 30 paintings and three wooden sculptures produced over the course of a decade by Chan Sophorn is finally on display for all to enjoy after years in hiding, with the artist aiming to raise awareness of the inseparable relationship between humans and nature.

The exhibition, Life of Nature, opened on June 3 at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre and will run until June 29. Among his collection of work kept from the public gaze for over a decade, he says his most eye-catching piece is Heaven Forest, something he painted seven years ago.

“Heaven Forest has finally found its proper place to be displayed in Phnom Penh,” the 38-year-old artist says with great excitement.

“More than 30 paintings and three wooden sculptures that are displayed here are what I have kept hidden these past 10 years.”

The Prey Veng province-born artist revealed how hard it has been to find a gallery to exhibit his work in recent years, with the controversial nature of some of his paintings proving too risky for many.

“Places do not allow me to display my work because they are worried about it highlighting wealthy people cutting down and selling trees for their own gain."

“This is my first time exhibiting my paintings at Bophana Centre. These are pieces from my school project I used to complete my Master’s degree in South Korea. This is a large space and many students can come and learn about it so it’s a good venue to display my work,” Sophorn says.

Growing up in a rural area with lots of green space, the second child of five in a farming family, Sophorn has always felt a connection with nature. This is what inspired the content of his work.

“My Life of Nature exhibition highlights the vitality of nature, which is priceless to humans and all living things on earth. We’re absolutely dependent on nature; if we exploit nature for our selfish benefits and greed, it will take its toll on us. It will be harsh and unstoppable; nature can hurt us a million times harder than we can hurt it."

“This exhibition is therefore a message to the people of the world to join together to preserve the environment, especially the forest. Without trees, there is no life. I urge people to take great care of our environment and nature to sustain lives on this planet altogether,” he says.

Since opening the exhibition one week ago, Sophorn has already had success selling his paintings.

“Three of my paintings were sold right away on the opening day of the exhibition. Among them is the $100 painting Elephant Pond, which depicts an evocative scene from the foot of the Cardamom mountains in Pursat province. The 40cm by 120cm painting was bought by staff at the Bophana Centre.

“One of the most expensive paintings at the exhibition is Heaven Forest [costing $3,580] which depicts Khmer angels in the blooming forest with a mighty waterfall beneath a cloud kingdom of heavenly palaces and temples,” he says.

Sophorn honed his artistic talents while completing a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and painting at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2010.

He then spent three years in South Korea learning the language while doing his Master’s degree in contemporary painting at Sang Myung University in Seoul, a school well-known for producing successful artists.

He was offered a job teaching art in South Korea upon graduating in 2014, but he decided to return to his homeland to pursue a career in the unforgiving and risky world of art.

“I was clear with myself that I must return to my home country after I finished my studies. I wanted to bring the knowledge and skills I learned in South Korea to teach the Cambodian younger generations, especially poorer students."

“My belief is that if you have an opportunity to pursue your studies abroad, you should help your own country after your finish your studies by returning. The country and passing down your knowledge should be the main concern,” says Sophorn, who now teaches at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Life of Nature exhibition is located at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre on Daun Penh district’s Street 200 in Phnom Penh. Admission is free.