At a small street near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, a mural of the great Khmer King Jayavarman VII of an ancient bygone era has appeared surrounded by a bright circle of traditional flower patterns, attracting passersby with its exquisite detail.
This is the work of art of young Cambodian artist Yi Kakada, who spent $1,000 of his own money buying paint to create the mural, which spans 8m and is over 2m tall, over the course of a week.
The scene depicted pays homage to Jayavarman VII – one of the Khmer Empire’s greatest kings, who reigned from AD 1181 to 1218 in present-day Siem Reap – and Reahou, the mystical giant from Khmer folklore that swallows the moon, causing a lunar eclipse.
It is located at Street 240 – Oknha Chhun street, south of the Royal Palace.
“It was difficult for me because the wall was very old and frail. Some parts were covered in thick moss that I had to clean up and fix before starting to paint under the scorching sun,” he says.
The mural blends traditional with contemporary art forms, and was inspired by Kakada’s visit to Angkor Wat Temple.
“I started painting this because I’ve always thought highly of the art at Angkor Wat. The intricate carvings by our great ancestors are really amazing. Especially Jayavarman VII, he was an extraordinary king in our history that casts the Angkor Era in glory.
“People from this ancient time have left us many of their amazing pieces of work that I want to depict on the walls of Phnom Penh,” Kakada says, standing in front of the mural.
Previously, the 23-year-old artist, who is famous for being able to paint with both hands simultaneously, became well known after a YouTube video showing him painting two portraits of former King Norodom Sihanouk as a young and old man went viral.
Born in 1997 to a middle-class family in Battambang province, Kakada has four sisters and three brothers and is the youngest child of eight. His father earned a living by trading silk, krama and fabric as his mother is a silk weaver.
Kakada’s father died of old age in 2001 when he was just four years old, leaving the burden to raise seven children solely to his mother. Four years later, Kakada’s mother passed away too, forcing his sisters into work at an early age. Seeing his talent, the siblings decided to send Kakada to art school in Battambang, with the hope it would equip the talented young artist with the skills to quickly earn money for the family.
In reality, Kakada only attended art school for a few months before dropping out.
“During that time my family was in a very miserable living condition. My sisters started selling clothes at a market, but I couldn’t help her because I was still in grade two at primary school. Around that time I started to get an interest in painting, I drew a portrait of my friend in exchange for a small amount of money,” he says.
At age 11 in 2008, Kakada and his sisters moved to Phnom Penh where his teachers and classmates at Norodom Primary School instantly noticed his talent. At his teacher’s suggestions, aged 12, he entered the Asian Painting Competition, winning first place.
“I was an outstanding student and a musician at school. Many girls had a crush on me, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t afford to have a girlfriend. I just focused on my paintings and sold them to my friends because I was poor”, he says.
After graduating high school at 15, Kakada completed a number of odd jobs until one his high school friend offered to pay him to paint a mural on the wall at his parent’s restaurant. Following this, he kept receiving offers to paint at other restaurants and street art festivals.
But his love of art has always outweighed the obstacles. Kakada dreams to paint murals around the world, so that people from all nations will recognise Khmer art and creativity.
“Cambodia will be a famous country like other countries, and I hope Cambodians will encourage Khmer artists and support Khmer art,” he said.