On Behalf of Nature: Three Artists Make the Case to Save the Earth and All Living Things

Work by artist Van Chhovorn entitled “Planting green life.” Photo: The Gallerist

PHNOM PENH — The three Cambodian artists whose works are exhibited at The Gallerist in Phnom Penh may have different approaches and styles in their work but one thing they share is their concern for nature and the environment.  

“Nature is our everything: We can't live without nature,” said Sou Sophy. She has expressed this by featuring hornbills, using her very personal technique of sculpting relief on canvas by using recycled paper. “Hornbill is one of the animals that live with love their life long.

“’100 Years of Friendship’ is my title,” she said, for this series of works. “It's a joy that we have [these birds] on our planet. Love is everything, making life possible for everyone.” In one of her works on exhibit, the heads of two birds appear beak to beak with red fruit in their mouths, as if they were passing them from one to the other. The two pale-brown birds are sculpted in relief on a muted green background of leaves and trees. 

Artwork entitled “100 Years of Friendship” by artist Sou Sophy. Photo: The Gallerist

Sophy, Chhoeun Channy and Van Chhovorn had planned this exhibition entitled “Spectrum of Nature” several years ago, according to Channy. But then came the COVD-19 pandemic in 2020 and, afterwards, they got busy with other projects, he said. So, it is only recently that they were able to get together so this exhibition could take place.

In his paintings, Chhovorn links nature with tradition in Cambodia. “Tradition and nature are indispensable,” he said. “Tradition reflects our identity while nature sustains our livelihood.”

Chhovorn features traditional figures he brings to life in a dynamic way while respecting tradition. “Although I have been inspired by the work left by our ancestors, I have my own style to do a painting,” he said. In one work, Hanuman is featured in movement, the traditional image respected while depicted with new vitality and as if he was enabling a plant with its green leaves to grow taller.

Even though some artworks carry images that speak of threats to the environment in ways that may be more symbolic than direct, the goal is the same, Chhovorn said. “With art, it may not be 100 percent highlighting deforestation or raising awareness,” he said. “However, I want my art to gradually inject the idea [of protecting the environment] into young children.”


Painting entitled “New Trajectory” by artist Chhoeun Channy. Photo: The Gallerist

While Sou Sophy and Van Chhovorn mainly use muted colors in their works, Chhoeun Channy turns to bright ones to speak of the threats to the environment. In one painting, a giant monkey done in golden-brown tones is sitting on a green leaf. One of its paws is on a van that is being followed by trucks coming along a canyon type of road as Planet Earth appears in the sky among stars.

As Channy explained, “I feel that we are people playing with toys…We don’t know what is going on, what is happening on Earth. We just play like kids would do, we don’t stop, we keep playing, we don’t know what we do…what is wrong, what is right: we just keep playing.”

And in the meantime, he said, “the climate has changed, [in Cambodia] the seasons are not at the same time as before. Sometimes it rains during the dry season, you know…Before, every year, we would have one or two months of cold season. Now…maybe one or two days are cool in Cambodia…It is not one or two months like 20 years ago.”

And it’s not as if we could move to the moon if we can no longer live on the planet, Channy said. “The moon has no water, no air, no tree, just ground…It is what we are seeing on Earth: We cut all the trees, and we just keep building…soon it will become a second moon.”


From left, artists, Chhoeun Channy, Van Chhovorn and Sou Sophy pose in the art gallery The Gallerist. Photo: The Gallerist

Sou Sophy, Van Chhovorn and Chhoeun Channy have studied in the arts programs of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang province.

Sophy, who is an author and graphic designer, has also taught at Phare. An illustrator of children’s books, she has seen her work exhibited in the country and internationally.

Chhovorn was born in 1982 in a refugee camp during the civil war of the 1980s. After moving to Banteay Meanchey province in the late 1990s, he went to work in Thailand in 2000 to help support his family and ended up on a fishing boat where he worked in slavery-type of conditions. In 2002, he managed to return to Cambodia where he worked as a farm worker, and also started studying at Phare. He moved to Ratanakiri province in the 2010s where he has worked as a cabinet maker as well as a sculptor. His artworks have been exhibited in numerous galleries. 

Born in 1988, Chhoeun Channy grew up on the family farm that was virtually in the jungle in Battambang province. He had to drop out of school in 7th grade to help his family while his father—a traditional music musician by training—worked in Thailand. When his father returned, Channy went to Battambang City to attend Phare Ponleu Selpak that offers free arts classes to students of poor families. In 2016, he moved to Siem Reap City where he opened his art studio. Channy’s work has been shown in several galleries.

The exhibition at The Gallerist on Street 240 in Phnom Penh, which is open Tuesday through Sunday, runs through Dec. 31.

For information on the exhibition: https://www.facebook.com/Thegallerist.cambodia


Painting by Van Chhovorn entitled “Oxygen.”


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