Naturally, twins Sor Sophany and Sor Sophanin share a lot of common – not least their names – but most important among the pair’s similarities are two things; firstly their love for painting, as well as encouraging children to paint.
Secondly, when the twins put down their brushes, they wrap their hands and practice Bokator, an ancient form of combat first practiced by Khmer fighters more than a thousand years ago.
Sophany and Sophanin say that both painting and fighting have contributed to their sense of empowerment and boosted their confidence as women.
Born in 1989, the twins were raised in Siem Reap town, where the ancient temples of the Angkor Kingdom still bear carvings depicting Bokator.
University graduates in Finance and Banking, the twin’s parents initially disapproved of the women practicing a combat sport, so Sophany and Sophanin began learning Bokator secretly in 2015.
“I started learning Bokator in 2015 twice a week, every Saturday and Sunday. Now I am brown Kroma level,” 30-year-old Sophany said.
The sisters said safety, their interest in Khmer heritage and inspiring other women were the major reasons they started their Bokator journey.
“I was a weak Khmer girl. We cannot predict when there will be a problem, but if I know Bokator, at least I can defend myself before I receive help. I do love Bokator, but the word love is not enough. It is a part of Khmer heritage and I want to encourage Cambodian women to protect Khmer culture,” Sophany said, wearing her Bokator uniform.
But when not practicing Bokator, Sophany and Sophanin also find joy in helping each other in the art studio.
They’ve both loved art since they were kids, as they would decorate, draw and inscribe their books. But they initially put aside their passion to enter a field offering more lucrative jobs – finance and banking.
“Before I began work as an artist I worked as an account manager, but I felt unhappy with that job. I was stressed; I thought so much and could not sleep well. I didn’t want to wake up and go to work,” Sophany said.
“I studied art between 2009 and 2014 at Colours of Cambodia as I was fed up with my finance and banking job. Luckily in 2014, the teachers recommended I apply to become an art teacher at the organisation and my dream career started there. Working as an art teacher, I am delighted and want to go to work.”
Sophany is now a teacher and project manager at the organisation, while Sophanin in June took a break from her position as sculpture and stone carving manager.
“Currently Sophanin is helping our brother’s business. But she also helps me to teach the kids every Saturday and Sunday, and provides painting suggestions when I have an exhibition. Although she does a different job, she still helps the kids,” Sophany said.
The twins believe they can be the bridge that connects artists to the community by an environment in which children are encouraged to take part in the arts.
“Something has to change and we need to start from ourselves. I asked permission from the headmaster of a local school to teach children how to sketch and paint. I hope to help kids enjoy their childhood,” said Sophany.
Using their surroundings as inspiration, the twin’s own artwork reflects what they see every day, from violence to police harassment.
Their art merges imagination and memory, with drawings about people, life and myths of childhood in Cambodia.
“I want people to see what I see every day. I want them to see how things are where I live. I would like them to know the good times and the bad times I have seen,” Sophany said.
Their work has been displayed in local and international exhibitions, with their latest exhibition The Enlightened Child featured in March at the visual arts centre Dhoby Ghaut Green in Singapore.
Going forward, Sophany plans to add various art forms to the free art classes she provides at Colours of Cambodia.
“In the future, I want to expand and include other subjects, such as stone carving and timber design,” she said.