Leang Seckon: Painting Today’s Cambodia with its Cultural Roots that Extend to India 

Artwork by Leang Seckon that reflect Cambodia in the 21th century. Photo provided

PHNOM PENH — The concept of Leang Seckon’s artworks is far from new. In fact, it is hundreds of years old. The Khmer were sculpting scenes of war or daily life on the walls of Angor Wat and the Bayon temple 900 years or so ago. In Europe, scenes depicting people or events were woven or embroidered on fabric and then displayed on stone walls.

The scenes in Seckon’s artworks tend to be complex to say the least. They may reflect whole pages of history and the people who marked them in Cambodia or abroad, along with Hindu and Buddhist religious symbols next to images of ordinary people.

And, as the artworks featured in his exhibition opening at Meta House on Nov. 18, they usually are collages as well as paintings done on canvas and layers of fabric.

In one artwork, sections of Angkorian-era scenes on stone walls appear along with a highrise and a photo of the late King Norodom Sihanouk making an offering to a monk. There also are students in uniforms, a young woman receiving her “miss” award, a black-and-white image of shy children, a color one of a young woman laughing as she looks at her mobile phone. Plus a musician in a white shirt holding a Khmer traditional instrument, pieces of old manuscripts and embroidered fabric. In other words, elements of Cambodia’s past and present as they are found in the country today.

This exhibition, which presents an overview of his work over the years, follows Seckon’s two-month residency in India . “I chose India,” he said, because of the culture and history the two countries share. He had had residencies in the United States, Europe and other countries in Asia but, until now, not in India, he said.  

Seckon spent July 2023 on an internship with the Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi, and August on an internship with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts—a major arts organization funded by the Indian government.

For the works he did during this residency, Seckon said, “I used material from India I collected along the road for collages [and background] for the paintings as well. Of course, it’s layers and layers.” Instead of putting fabric on the canvas and then paint on it as he normally does, he put the “wrong” side of the fabric as canvas. “Then I used acrylic paint, sewed some pieces of materials as I usually do, and also did collage,” he said. “So, in addition to elements painted, there are pieces of leather, fabric and collage; sewing, and embroidery…on the canvas.”

Details of an artwork that will feature in Leang Seckon’s exhibition in India in 2024. Photo provided

Seckon, who studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in the 1990s, is one of the country’s leading artists whose works have been shown in numerous countries around the world.

In the mid-2010s, he started to feature in his paintings what he called his mother’s skirt. Born in 1970 in a poor family of Prey Veng province, one of his earliest memories, in addition to those about having to take cover whenever his village was bombarded, are of his mother mending her only skirt and patching it with pieces of fabric, which added weight to it.

Still using his concept of “heavy skirt” in these works made of multiple layers of fabric, painted elements and collages, this series now reflects the universal mother, he said, whose reality crosses borders.

The paintings exhibited at Meta House tend to be no more than 1.5-by-1.4 meter in size. As Seckon explained, while he often creates works that cover whole walls for museums, he opts for smaller formats when he paints works meant for galleries, keeping in mind that people may have limited wall space at home to hang the artworks they acquire.

The series of works on which he is now working will soon be exhibited in India, he said.

The exhibition at Meta House opening at 5:00 pm on Nov. 18 with a performance by Seckon lasts one month.

For more information on the event and exhibition:  https://m.facebook.com/events/1407598390160365?mibextid=Nif5oz

Cambodian artist Leang Seckon is sewing elements of an artwork he is in the process of creating. Photo provided.

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