Meet Leang Seckon, one of Cambodia’s foremost contemporary artists. His first European solo exhibition, The Heavy Skirt , opened this spring at London’s Rossi & Rossi gallery–to great acclaim. It consists of twenty pieces: collages, paintings, patchworks, and three-dimensional figures that cover a range of recent Cambodian history. Born amid U.S. bombings and raised during the Khmer Rouge terror, Seckon dedicates this exhibit to his mother.
“The Heavy Skirt refers to the life of my mom,” he explains. “When I was a child in her stomach, she was wearing the skirt. The skirt covered her stomach and covered me.”
When he was born, Leang says, his family–and the country–had “a heavy life.” His childhood home had been thickly carpet-bombed in Nixon’s secret war against the nation, an image recounted in the painting “Flicking Skirt”: His mother is out with him and his brother in the fields, and she hears planes coming.
“Bombs came from the sky, and fell around the house. She and my brother were in the bunker. She tried to get me but could not, so she just left me alone outside of the bunker,” Leang says. So there he is, alone in the middle of the painting, surviving blacklace destruction and watching birds escape to safety.
“The sound from the airplane, the sound from the car, the sound from the bomb or the gun, I become very shocked and scared,” he says, meaning now. These days, when cars backfire, or planes swoop too low, or guns or bombs go off and they still do, in Cambodia–the artist gets nervous. “This is left over from that time,” he explains.
His subject matter includes the brief period of Cambodian independence, and the cultural production that emerged; U.S. and Vietnamese military activity in the early 1970s; the oppressive Pol Pot years; the subsequent Vietnamese occupation; the plays for power over Cambodia. In “The Bloody Shirt,” Leang paints a giant military man on a five-by-four-foot canvas decorated with scraps of cloth, representing medals from all the different armies that have invaded his country.
His depiction of the Khmer Rouge is haunting, as he transforms the photographic documentation of its victims into a collage. “People were like mummies,” he says, comparing them to the “living dead.” During this period, says Leang, “I’m very scared, and cry. I’m very shocked.”
L eang was born into the deep poverty of the Prey Veng province in the southeast corner of the country. His mother’s heavy skirt was old and quilted with patches; the family’s subsistence-level earnings from the rice farm where the artist worked as a buffalo boy for ten years left no money to replace clothing.
Leang honed his skills at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. He took two bachelor’s degrees in place of the BFA and MFA he might have pursued were higher education–and art appreciation–in his native land not still rebuilding after the Khmer Rouge years. After finishing school in 2002, he began showing in emerging galleries throughout Phnom Penh, as well as in Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. Perhaps even more impressive, at least back home, his work has been endorsed by two kings: Norodom Sihamoni in 2008 and his father, Norodom Sihanouk, four years earlier.
Leang’s work renders the terrifying beautiful: matted lush surfaces, uneven, scratchy lines, images pulled from the garbage, from ads, from other artists, from the media. Objects are worked into the thick paint: pockets, notebooks, bits of thread, photocopies, fabrics.
He’s had a fairly straight rise to the top, considering that he and his contemporaries have created a Cambodian art community almost from scratch.
Leang calls himself a “freedom artist,” yet freedom of expression–in a country where journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes killed for reporting on governmental activity, and where the number of arrests of human rights activists rose by about 70 percent last year–is hard to come by.
“My art is respect,” he says. “I don’t want my artwork to attack. I don’t want any people–any people –hurt by me,” he emphasizes. But by the same token, he wants to “let people know that they did something wrong.” As he puts it: “I just try to make you understand that what you did to me is painful.“
L eang’s work also tackles environmental issues. The Rubbish Project, from June 2006, is an ongoing collaboration with cultural worker Fleur Smith. Recent events have included dance performances and a large-scale trash fashion show, with volunteer models from the art, social justice, ex-pat, and local communities. Clothing, patterned after traditional wear and modern street fashion, featured tea-bag tag flowerets, discarded plastic flounce, and fanciful capes–all in keeping with the excessively fancy Khmer look, except made from garbage.
In 2008, the group installed a massive Naga on the Siem Reap River for World Water Day. The majestic serpent deity, composed of found plastic baggies, was for a time the protectorate of the city’s waterway, and earned the praise of the king.
“Seckon has purposely tried to expand public understanding of the artist’s role through both his individual practice as a Freedom Artist and through the communal and environmental focus of the Rubbish Project,” independent curator and arts writer Erin Gleeson explains.
Leang’s studio sits on Boeung Kak, the capital city’s largest remaining natural lake. It is being filled to make way for a residential and shopping district, a project headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sand is being dredged daily from a spot in front of the Royal Palace on the Mekong and piped over to an area just across the bay from the artist’s back deck. The project violates several laws, as do the evictions that result. Hundreds have been forced to move already, and thousands more will join them in the coming months and years.
Leang Seckon is among them.
“The company bought the lake, and now they are destroying the lake,” he says. “I’m not happy at all, because I spent eight years on this lake to get energy for my artwork.”
Such events–indeed, the entire history of Cambodia–cannot be undone. Not the civil wars, not poverty, not genocide. Not border disputes, beatings, murder, corruption, bombings, or landmines.
“History is treachery,” Leang says. “It is already done. But I want to show the people what happened in past time, and they can understand more deeply about the present in art.”
Anne Elizabeth Moore teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Moore, Anne Elizabeth