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Watching Tevy

By: Adam Fogarty Posted: July-08-2008 in
Sokuntevy - photo - Paul Stewart
Adam Fogarty

As a protégé of local arts entrepreneur Nico Mesterharm, and one-time artist in residence of Phnom Penh's MetaHouse, Sokuntevy ('Tevy') has brought startling authenticity to the Cambodian fine arts community - authenticity which is not an exaggeration of context.

Tevey's public work - showcased in four high profile exhibitions in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap over the past year - consists of paintings using mixed, organic media (including oils and materials such as raw coffee grinds) and human masks (using oils and paper machè) based on traditional Khmer astrological themes and divinities.

The mediums Tevy works with compliment such themes. "I love painting with coffee, and other raw materials that look crazy," Tevy says. "Also, I'm into dark colors, such as dark browns and reds ... strong colours."

One series of her paintings, titled But Free and Easy, which has been exhibited at the Meta House and Java Café, shows a strong understanding of the human form normally lacking in artists who have not had substantial formal training or who haven't been exposed to significant international, creative influences.

Two pieces in particular, one showing three people embracing, and the other portraying what appears to be two homosexuals (much of her work is untitled), combines form and texture in a way which resonates with Picasso's female curvatures. With an elegance that transcends posturing, Tevy uses curves and waves in these pieces in a way that conveys a beatific vision of human emotion that places Tevy well beyond her years.

"I went to art school in Battambang when I was 18 years old," she says. "Then an artist from France visited and trained students to be artists ... taught them to create and be open. But, my family wasn't happy for me to be an artist, so I stopped going to art school, and started painting at home. It's difficult to be an artist in Cambodia."

Cambodian society remains very conservative. The diminutive Tevey would be the last person you'd expect to challenge the status quo by approaching the topic of two men in her paintings. However, you get the impression that her paintings are not forced or contrived but delivered naturally - thus positioning Tevy as a unique lens with which to view Cambodian society.

Traditionally, visual arts in Cambodia have mostly been based on the weaving of textiles (cotton and silk), stone carving, lacquer ware, silversmithing, ceramics, wat murals and even crafting of kites. It wasn't until the 1940s that Cambodia's tradition of modern (representational) drawing, painting and sculpture was established at the School of Cambodian Fine Arts (to be later renamed the University of Fine Arts), where it occupied much of the school's curriculum a decade later. These developments were supported by the government, which encouraged new areas of specialization (for example, design and modern painting) at the school, and purchased modern art for the Prime Minister's residences and for government buildings. Galleries opened in Phnom Penh in the 1960s, and cultural centres hosted exhibitions of modern paintings and provided art libraries. During the Khmer Rouge era, many artists were killed and art production nearly ceased.

After the Khmer Rouge, artists and professors returned to the University of Fine Arts to rebuild arts training. Even though several galleries in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap now present exhibitions, most artists cannot afford to support themselves, and are inclined to produce conservative, Angkor-inspired art for tourists, which tend to stultify creativity.

Unique expression is a constant battle for Cambodian artists. During the 1990s, Cambodia saw the return of many members of the Khmer diaspora, including several internationally-recognized artists who had trained overseas, including Marine Ky, the print and illustration artist whose work is part of the Australian National Gallery collection and Chath Piersath, the noted Cambodian-American poet, painter and humanitarian.

For Tevy however, who hasn't received fine arts training overseas, external influences have somehow found their way into her work on a sublime level that continues to impress both local and foreign art critics. Nico Mesterharm of Meta House has described her as a "truly unique Cambodian artist." Whilst Dana Langlois, owner of Phnom Penh's Java Café, remains one of Tevey's most loyal supporters.

Her work continues to command top exhibition space - a new show at Meta House on 22nd July (2008) will showcase her work "with an artist from LA", and all of her public work to date will be shown at Siem Reap's De La Paix Hotel, " sometime in September". Perhaps it's Tevy's intuition, or maybe just her commitment that makes her such an original and important Cambodian artist. "As soon as I get out of bed, I start painting," she says. Asked what else she does with her life, she hesitates, then replies, "I spend all my time doing art ... my whole time."

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