Women in the 21st Century: Facing Old Attitudes in a New Era

: Digital sketch on photo by artist Sao Sreymao entitled “Best Friend 5.” Done on paper Ilford Galerie Smooth Cotton Rag.

PHNOM PENH — Artist Sao Sreymao’s exhibition is about what seems to be a fact of life for women in the country.

“We feel we are never right,” she said. “That’s why I picked “Sampot Sor” (white skirt) as title for the exhibition. It’s part of a proverb in Cambodia…When you have a black spot on it, it’s forever.” 

Constantly judged, Sreymao said, “we are struggling a lot, we are becoming victims of society.”

The exhibition held at the Silapak Trotchaek Pneik gallery in Phnom Penh features photos that she either took or were provided by friends and that she digitally transformed, plus a few sculptures.

Every work is the story of a friend, Sreymao explained. “My Best Friend Six,” which features the face of a woman covered by a mask, is about a woman who grew up without a father. “People in the community…did not treat her well,” she said. “She told me she was ok with it now, but the way she was repeating the story, I thought not. To me, she was stuck in her childhood, the trauma from the past.”

In another photo, a woman is in a lake with people near the bank looking at her, ghostly figures sketched in white on a dark-green and black background. The woman seen from the back has her body being pieced and glued together by her spirit sketched in red who is working on rebuilding her back.      

This work entitled “My Best Friend 2” is about a young woman who, at her workplace, had a man show her his private parts. The young woman told her mother who responded that she had to be strong if she wanted to keep on working.   

When harassment or other incidents happen, Sreymao said, “in many cases, the family is there for you. They support you. But there is no choice: You cannot escape the problem…you have to stand up for it. You need to be strong: You live or you leave.”

Digital sketch on photo by artist Sao Sreymao entitled “Best Friend 2.” Done on paper Ilford Galerie Smooth Cotton Rag. 

Born in the Site 2 camp for Cambodian refugees in Thailand in the mid-1980s, Sreymao studied at the School of Visual and Applied Arts of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang City. After graduation, she worked as assistant curator of the Romeet Gallery—an art gallery that Phare Ponleu Selpak maintained in Phnom Penh for a few years to exhibit the work of the artists trained through its programs.

A freelance illustrator, Sreymao has worked on graphic novels, which led her to win an award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. She also has been involved in environmental education, including a Tonle Sap river project that was funded by Western universities. One of her recent projects as an illustrator was the 2022 book “Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia.” Written by U.S. journalist Abby Seiff, the book speaks of people living on the Tonle Sap Lake whose way of life is disappearing due to the state of the lake.

The exhibition also includes sculptures. One of them truly embodies what she has meant to convey in her series. The work consists of two feet set in a display case made of grey wire netting. This was inspired by a friend of hers from Nepal whose mother made sure she received a good education. People in her community blamed her for studying instead of working to help support her mother, Sreymao said. “Her mother taught her…how to survive,” she said. “Her feet is not a problem: She uses them to stand up.”

The exhibition at the Silapak Trotchaek Pneik gallery, which is located on Street 830 off Sothearos Boulevard—https://www.facebook.com/STPCambodia—runs through Nov. 9, 2022.     

Artist Sao Sreymao is photographed next to her sculpture entitled “Body, 2022.” Photo: ©STP Cambodia (Nitossaa Studio: Sith Sereypanha), 2022.

Digital sketch on photo by artist Sao Sreymao entitled “My Sister, 2021.” Done on paper ILFORD Galerie Smooth Cotton Rag.

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