I had not met Thuokna during any of my visits to Battambang. Instead, I relied upon learning about him through the internet, messaging, and chatting with mutual friends. Morgane Darrasse, the Communications Consultant for Phare Creative Studio, had sent me links to explore, but I wanted to get a feel for his personhood to understand his art. So who was this young man experimenting diligently to become a movie makeup artist, film animator, costume designer, movie director, and caricaturist?
I studied his face on a post he had written during Pchum Ben, the 15-day festival in which the country participates in rituals to honor the dead and the spirits of their ancestors. Thoukna’s face was serene and dateless – his long black locks falling loosely on his cheekbones. Yet, maturity and youthful exuberance were present as he spooned out his rice offerings to relatives who had died, citing his father’s directions from his early childhood. Family and friends had joined him in Battambang’s Wat Kandal, the Buddhist temple where he had lived.
Thuokna is twenty-eight years old and shares similar stories of finding his way to the infamous art school, Phare Ponleu Selpak, receiving a free meal a day and a subsidized scholarship. For shelter, a local Buddhist temple took him in. Later he was hired to join the team at Phare Creative Studio, a social enterprise supporting Phare Ponleu Selpak and dedicated to using video, animation, graphic design, sound design, and illustration to produce Cambodian creations for the social good. Phare helped him pay for his training with Pothmolito Dou, aka Apple, when she returned to Cambodia to teach a session in face and body art. Apple was the first Cambodian to graduate from Hollywood’s Cinema Make-up School and work in costume design, special effects, sculpting, and runway art in the movie and fashion industry.
This short 2018 video by Pagna Chan captures Thuokna SIN’s nature and interest in character design.
Face and body painting is a prehistoric practice that was an important part of daily and spiritual lives, often reflecting their inner qualities, wishes for the future, images of gods, and many natural or war themes. It has transformed throughout the centuries and is evident in contemporary Cambodia in art, fashion, parades, performances, and gatherings.
Phare’s events offer it to their visitors and neighbors at many of their events. Thuokna SIN wants to take it to another level and acquire the skills to use it in the film industry, which is also growing in Cambodia. As he acquires new skills, he stays busy painting for Phare events and creating make-up and animation for Phare Creative Studio.
Body painting by Thuokna SIN for the music video of the band SmallWorld SmallBand.
Thuokna SIN did the body art for Phare Creative Studio’s video Freedom is a Summer Blossom.
The art of caricature fascinates Thuokna, who frequently practices it in Battambang. His work has become quite popular at Phare’s events, and he is aware of the Cambodian history of caricatures and cartoonists, political or entertainment. He wants to assist in reviving the practice as several early postwar students did at Phare.
The first Khmer language newspaper, Nagara Vatta, did not appear until 1936, during the late phase of the French Colonial period. It contained caricatures of both citizens and the power brokers. Yet caricatures and exaggerated visual humor can be traced back to Angkor Wat paintings. This artistic practice became prominent again in the 1960s in the magazines overseen by Norodom Sihanouk, the former King and Head of State.
Em Sokha was the most prolific and renowned caricaturist and satirical cartoonist in Cambodia’s print industry since 1979. Using distortion and exaggeration to express the violence and the tension between the government and its citizens, he drew the visual tensions between alienation and freedom.
Thuokna’s caricatures focus on children and the Battambang community. They serve to delight and show attention to individuals too frequently overlooked. They help create community.
At Phare Creative Studio, Thuokna works with a team of animators and illustrators by developing characters and working on backgrounds.
Designing and constructing puppets for a theatrical show by Lakhon Komnit NGO addressing the plastic waste problem in Cambodia is another project that Thuokna is enjoying.
Lakhon Komnit (meaning “Thinking Theatre” in Khmer) is a team of Cambodian theatre artists who design and facilitate Lakhon Niyeay (spoken theatre) workshops, projects, and performances with communities, NGOs, schools, and universities across Cambodia.
Lakhon Komnit is dedicated to providing opportunities for Cambodian people to participate in, create, perform and watch Lakhon Niyeay. These intellectually and emotionally stimulating experiences can catalyze reflection and self-development.
Follow the theater’s activities here.
Thuokna was gracious and allowed me to use any photos I found on his Facebook page. Mutual friends were just as gracious as they shared their impressions of his work and life with me. One fellow artist said to me, “He’s good for us. He cares. He is joyous. He works and lives in good spirits. He loves learning. He’s good for Cambodia.”
After these simple words, nothing more needed to be said. As a young man, Thuokna SIN has already fulfilled the promise of life.
Thanks to Morgane Darrosse for her generous assistance in gathering visual assets. Learn more about Phare Creative Studio here.