Artist Leang Seckon: Please, Stop the War in Ukraine

Cambodian artist Leang Seckon painted this work entitled “Reborn Sunflower” as an appeal to peace in Ukraine. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina

For those who have lived through the conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s in Cambodia, such events bring back nightmares 

PHNOM PENH–When artist Leang Seckon heard of the war in Ukraine, his first reaction was “why.”

“At this moment, boom, there is a war coming. I’m so shocked,” he said. One of Seckon’s earliest memories is having to take cover when his village in Prey Veng Province was bombarded during the civil war in the early 1970s. “The story of my life is being terrified by bombs,” he said, “and trying hard to survive…and survive to make art. So, everything during my career has been quite bumpy but it gave me good experience and turned beautiful.”

This, until he heard of the war in Ukraine. Like people of his generation who grew up during the civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime and the conflict that followed, Seckon knows too well what war means and hearing about the Soviet Union attacking Ukraine brought it all back.

It had taken him years to be at peace and turned his memories of those decades into paintings so that he could finally let it go as Cambodia assumed its past and moved on, he said. “[T]oday’s Cambodia is a country [whole again], the head and the body unite.

“Everything comes together, history and contemporary times, the old generation, the new generation, Cambodia’s culture but also the world culture and the connection with history and technology,” he said. “I had to grow wings to look at the world and the future.”

And then on Feb. 24, Russia embarked on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, all the memories of those years of conflicts and pain in Cambodia resurfaced, Seckon said.  This war, he said, “it’s a shock, painful: It hurts.” 

Which led him to paint an appeal for the conflict to end. His work entitled “Reborn Sunflower” is now part of a series of paintings that can be viewed on April 1, 2 and 3 at the residence of British Ambassador Tina Redshaw in Phnom Penh—one must make a reservation as mentioned below.

In this work, grey clouds and red dots of bombs exploding fill the sky on the left side of the painting, with, on the right side, flags of countries and institutions that have or may play a role to stop this war such as the European Union, Australia, Canada, France, Japan and the United Kingdom with the logo of the United Nations in the center of the painting.

The gold and blue parasol in the middle of the work shades a sunflower with the blue and gold colors of the Ukrainian flag in its middle amidst other sunflowers and snowflakes. The lower part of the painting reflects in blue-grey tones life of today now interrupted: the face of a woman caught in the events, a soldier with only his helmet showing, some people dead while life continues on social media.

Seckon painted his appeal to peace in acrylic on canvas, incorporating pieces of leather and metallic thread.

This work is now part of Seckon’s series entitled Star Catcher that he created during the pandemic and which will be exhibited in Hong Kong at the Rossi & Rossi gallery in May 2022.  

The series was painted in the course of the pandemic that, as in the case of many people, turned Seckon’s life upside down. He went through difficult moments, he said. But he also went to work. “I tried to do a lot of paintings…and I wrote 200 songs during those nearly 3 years.” Seckon, who likes to sing, often does and holds art performances on opening nights of his exhibitions. “I had never tried to write a song, but now I can.”

This painting about the pandemic reflects on the social media, which took such importance during times of quarantine and countries such as China and the United States that supported Cambodia’s efforts to deal with COVID-19. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina

In the end, Seckon emerged from the pandemic at peace, he said. In the process, his style evolved, still multilayers but in softer lines and shades.

The painting “Star Catcher” after which the series is named is a brief history of the world. As he explained, elements in the work include the skeletons of people from past centuries buried in the ground, fans from the Egypt of the pharaohs millennia ago, and the pre-Angkorian temple of Angkor Borei, which he loves. Then there is today’s world with books, computers and smartphones as well as airplanes, submarines and bombs.

This painting in which Seckon appears in the bottom left corner—it represents the “buffalo boy” he was in his youth now exploring the universe, he said—also features people landing on the moon. “Some people are looking for another planet on which to live,” he said. “It’s a good idea but I don’t support this: I plan to support the Earth [and]…make it sustainable.”

Painting by Leang Seckon entitled “Lake for Sale.” Photo: Lim Sokchanlina

His series of paintings also includes one work reflecting the COVID-19 measures and remedies used during the pandemic. The main element is a first-aid cross as can be seen at pharmacies in the country, with syringes in the lower part of the cross. There is a smiling dragon in the background and a bird with the American flag around its neck: a nod to China and the United States, two of the countries that have provided vaccines and support to Cambodia during the pandemic.

Finally, one painting entitled “Lake for Sale” shows healthy fishes and a fish skeleton, plus a fish draped in a monk robe representing a monk praying. A reflection on the lakes being filled in and sold in Phnom Penh.

These paintings along with others will be exhibited at the Rossi & Rossi Gallery in Hong Kong. “We are planning to open Seckon’s show on the 21st of May and run it till 9th July,” said Fabio Rossi, owner of Rossi & Rossi (Hong Kong), in an email message. “This will be the gallery’s fourth solo presentation of his work, the second one in Hong Kong.” Rossi & Rossi, which specializes in contemporary artists from the Asia-Pacific region, has also held exhibitions of Seckon’s work in London, England, where the gallery is also based. 

To view these works at the residence of British Ambassador Tina Redshaw, people must confirm the day and time of their visit by calling 017-620-016 or emailing [email protected] (reservations by email must be made prior to 11:30 am on April 1). 

Viewing hours are: April 1 at 12:00 pm, 2 pm, 4 pm and 6 pm; April 2 and 3 at 12:00 pm, 2 pm and 4 pm.

The residence of the British ambassador is located at 20 Street 240 in Phnom Penh, a short distance from the Royal Palace.

Cambodian artist Leang Seckon is photographed in his studio in Phnom Penh. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina


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