Goodbye Little Brother by Van Chhovorn. Photo credit to Tom Whittaker.
Van Chhovorn mediates life through his art.
There are times one is drawn to an artist for reasons that seem difficult to articulate but rumble inside you like an ancient memory resurfacing. Such it is with my relationship with Van Chhovorn and his sculptures and paintings. Holding a wood carving of his in my hands emits feelings far beyond their sight, touch or smell. The wood quietly whispers to me of a life, a family, and a culture that I may witness but never quite know. To many, this will sound hackneyed but to me, it is the gift that art sometimes offers.
The art for art’s sake argument rings hollow with Van Chhovorn’s work. His recent wood sculptures speak loudly about reality and what is happening in his life and Cambodia. His pieces explore modern-day slavery, gender roles, disabilities, social issues, the environment, love, and cruelty – all from a very personal perspective.
Wood may be one of the oldest and most commonplace art materials, long used in African, Pre-Columbian, and Oceanic artwork to create interesting forms, but it has its challenges. The artist must learn to listen to the wood and allow it to inform him/her how to proceed in shaping its form. Van Chhovorn buys pieces of firewood and sculpts by the riverbank in his home in Prek Kanhung Village outside of Battambang, Cambodia.
Unable yet to make a living from his art he is steadfast in his conviction to continue against the surrounding cultural assumptions that he is wasting his time and should stick solely to his fieldwork. He is still a curiosity to some of his neighbors, several of whom gathered at a distance to watch as he showed me his collection of paintings and sculptures one morning at his home. He uses his daily life, work, and the community to explore and express both his angst and his love for his family and environment.
At age 38, Van Chhovorn has long been an active member of the Battambang art scene. Outsiders have a tendency to think that since the internet explosion there a massive world available to everyone who wants to learn and connect with others. This is untrue. Many Cambodian artists cannot participate equally due to language, education and other factors that make it difficult to connect with galleries, collectors, curators and markets that are typically Western.
Van Chhovorn does not speak English and talking across cultures and language is a huge challenge for him. Like other Battambang artists, he engages easily with his peers on Facebook pages, but this dialogue can go unnoticed by a larger world. He cannot read much of the art world’s discussion without a translator. Money and language become barriers to his success and his ability to explore or manuever around traditional gatekeepers in order to introduce his work. He faces great challenges wanting to connect with international social media because of his limited access to language, digital tools, and skills. Even today, artwork shared online in Cambodia rarely travels beyond the artist’s personal locality.
In truth, there is little democratic about the internet or the art world. I experience this with every visit to Battambang, where I inevitably hear a visiting outsider declare the Battambang artists are too naive and judge their work as ‘untrained’. From my perspective, it is these outsiders that are naive. Battambang artists are not ‘trying to be artists’. They are legitimate artists and they deserve the title. It matters not that you may like or dislike their art.
Van Chhovorn is a legitimate artist whose endurance is a testament to his character. He earned my respect when he reached out to me in June 1999 and began sharing his ideas and work with me. Despite the sometimes awkward task of translating conversations, I have savored how he reveals his great love for his family; how his relationship with his son entwines with his art; and how intimately he connects with the natural environment of his land. His care for the world is natural, pervasive, and ever-present.
After each conversation, I am reminded of Rumi’s poem:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
From left to right: Fight for Life, Teacher, and Feminity by Van Chhovorn.
Van Chhovorn didn’t begin playing with wood seriously until 2016. Much of his work consists of paintings in his particular Khmer decorative and colorful style. A devoted and playful father, many pieces express his love for motherhood, children, and nature.
Van Chhovorn’s work has been included in the excellent collection of Cambodian art at Romcheik 5 Art Space. His recent inclusion in Open Studio Cambodia as a collaborating artist is allowing his work to be seen in exhibitions in Seattle, Washington, and Paris. Please visit these organizations to support and learn more about their work.