Thursday, October 18, 2007

Khmer artist Emmanuelle Nhean

This article on Khmer artist Emmanuelle Nhean was penned by a good friend of mine, Denise Heywood for the Asian Art newspaper in 2003. Emmanuelle Nhean now has her own website, click here to find out more.

'Art is a sort of hope, a dream, a source of beauty, to show others what one has lived through,' says Cambodian artist Emmanuelle Nhean. Nhean is a survivor of the Pol Pot regime which devastated her country, Cambodia, between 1975-79, claiming the lives of nearly three million people. In 1980, she fled to France. In the ensuing years, she went to art school and through her vivid, colourful paintings, created a new life for herself. Nhean's career as an artist is one of inspiration, reflecting her determination to put the past behind her. Born in 1952, Nhean originally studied medicine. But when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, she and her family were forced out of their home at gunpoint and marched out into the countryside to do forced labour in the fields. Her father was killed, as were her brother and his young family, and many of her friends. Starving and debilitated, but still alive, she managed to get to a refugee camp and from there fled in 1980 and went to France. Although she resumed her medical studies in France, she was no longer motivated and felt a need to express herself in other ways. 'I had always loved art, even as a small child,' she explained. Her sister had been an architect and she was fascinated by her drawings. She decided to follow her instincts and attended private art classes, financing them by working as a nurse. Eventually she gained a place at an art school in Montparnasse in Paris and abandoned medicine. There she studied Western art and was especially influenced by Vermeer and Matisse. By 1988, having married a French fellow art student, she was earning her living as a painter.
Echoing the ancient artistic traditions of her native Cambodia, her abstract paintings explore new forms of expression. She has moved away from her Cambodian heritage whereby artistic patterns consist of emulating and perfecting ancient art forms that reached their apogee in the 12th-century Khmer empire. Although art is universal, she says, each culture has its own particular identity, but she no longer felt at ease with Khmer art. 'It's a culture which was halted a thousand years ago,' she said. She was drawn instead to abstract art. 'Since 1998, I have devoted myself to researching Khmer art and its contemporary expression, she continued. 'I pushed hard towards abstraction and found that liberating.' The result is a unique combination of past and present, which gives a powerful resonance to her paintings. Thus, three oil paintings, identified by numbers, called Ban Teay Srei Dans L'Univers Cubiste No 1, No 2 and No 3 each reveal hints of the exquisite carvings of female deities and decorated lintels at the 10th century temple of Banteay Srei at Angkor. But juxtaposed with the images are cubistic forms, boldly outlined in black and filled with either muted or strong colours of blue and gold and red. The subtlety of the ancient statuary is balanced against the immediacey of contemporary painting style.
Les Trois Graces (The Three Graces) is both witty and profound, echoing Western art by grouping three female figures together. But they are, in fact, images of apsaras, the celestial dancers carved in bas-relief on the walls of Angkor Wat, resplendent in elaborate head-dresses and long earrings. The subtle colours of stone are here replaced by bright reds, royal blues and vivid yellows. As if to confuse the notion of identity, both cultural and personal, the faces of the figures are blank, unpainted. This adds rather than detracts from the allure of their otherness and exoticism. Autant en Emporte le Vent (Gone With The Wind) another cultural juxtaposition challenges the viewer. Against a deep blue background are rows of red and orange figures. Too abstract to be positively identified as kneeling or sitting, they nevertheless recall rows of Buddhas in temples, not only by their numbers and arrangement, but because the red and orange recall the colours of Buddhist robes. Yet the title of the picture, with its filmic reference, also suggests a lost world and a culture that was almost wiped out. In La Danse (The Dance), a Khmer classical ballet dancer is shown in a typical pose, yet the picture is not at all Asian. It resembles the paintings of the dancers done by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, when King Sisowat brought his retinue of dancers and musicians to Paris for the Great Exhibition at the beginning of the 20th century. Le Guerrier (The Warrior) is another Angkorian reference, an astonishingly virile image of a male figure in bejewelled belt slung low on the hips, his legs bent as if in a movement of Khmer ballet, yet his arms raised in a pose of aggression. Once more, identity is both hidden and revealed, gleaned through cultural references while the face is almost blank, with only a few brushstrokes to suggest eyebrows, nose and mouth.
Nhean's unique artistic talent has resulted in a succession of solo and joint exhibitions in France, Austria and the USA. Her latest project is to promote the restoration of the Cambodian Pavilion at the City International University in Paris. Inaugurated in 1957, the Cambodian Pavilion is one of 37 student residences at the university. Following the catastrophic political events in Cambodia, it was closed in January 1973. The project is supported by Unesco, the Cambodian Embassy and the City International University. She will hold an exhibition of her work at the Hotel du Rond Point des Champs Elysee in 2003 to raise funds for the renovation, and to highlight, at the same time, the much needed restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and at Angkor. As yet, relatively little contemporary art is emerging from Cambodia, as it recovers not only from the violence within it but from its isolation from the rest of the world. This makes Nhean's work, exposed as it has been to cross-cultural influences, all the more dynamic. In her art, as in her life, Nhean has acknowledged her past but embraced the future. 'I confronted the horrors, but without being destroyed, she concluded. 'It is through art that one is saved.'

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